Imagine you’re relaxing

I wanted to lie down on the couch.

I’d been sitting at the computer for a couple of hours, and I really really wanted to go and stretch out and relax on the couch.

The couch was right there…12 feet away.

But then I thought…

Huh. 

What if I focus on the good feeling of relaxing on the couch, rather than actually doing it?

What are the limits of my ability to focus on relief and relaxation as the desired outcome of lying on the couch?

After all, lying on the couch is a neutral action. You can lie on a couch and feel stiff and terrible, just as you can say the words “I feel good” while feeling horrible.

I want to lie on the couch because I believe doing so will relieve tension and discomfort from sitting for too long.

But is it necessary to get up and go lie on the couch in order to feel that?

As a test or experiment, I thought I’d find out how couch-like I could feel without actually getting up and going to lie on the couch.

Oh man.

It turns out I’ve never really appreciated lying on a couch as much as when I didn’t actually lie on it.

The process of getting deeper and deeper into couch-like relaxation revealed hidden resistance.

For example, in the past I’ve hurt my back numerous times, and so I have an ingrained fear of arching my back unsupported in case I pull a muscle in my lower back.

It’s a protective habit, but it means I’m walking around with this guarded tension in parts of my back.

Why can’t I relax without lying on the couch? It turns out I can, I’m just not used to it.

This weird little experiment of declining to recline demonstrates that I can evoke feelings of relaxation and letting go, without taking the action that I usually associate with those feelings.

It also suggests that action can sometimes stand in the way of truly changing how I feel.

Deceptive activity

The action of lying down might relax me to some degree, but it also stops me learning how to relax without lying down, which is far more valuable to me.

After about ten minutes focusing like this, I went and lay down. Surprisingly, it was harder to relax lying down than when sitting. It was harder to relax because lying down hadn’t truly relaxed me, it had just taken away the pressure.

I wasn’t learning to let go, I was just relieving the worst of the burden.

In this sense, action can be counter-productive at times.

It can relieve the pressure that would otherwise motivate us to change our behaviour – like learning how to properly relax.

It can also confuse us as to what we really want.

For example, I thought I really wanted to lie on the couch. But it turned out that I really wanted to feel relaxed and relieved…and by resisting the more obvious course of action, I learned that I could feel relaxation and relief even in an uncomfortable position.

Isn’t that exciting? That means it wasn’t even really about the position or the action (or lack thereof), but about something in my mind from the beginning.

If I can use my mental focus to relax, then presumably it was my lack of focus, or my focus on something else, that caused my tension to persist in the first place.

Doesn’t that imply that I can feel relaxed and relieved of pressure whenever I like?

This idea of mental relaxation through visualisation is nothing new. I’ve heard it before many times but never succeeded in applying it.

I think that might be for melancholic reasons.

Simple tricks or techniques to relax (or for any purpose) tend not to appeal to melancholics because of our deep desire for meaning.

That’s why I’ve only used this technique successfully now, because it fits into the broader context of how one’s experience of reality, feelings, and thoughts, flow from one’s point of focus.

I think this serves as a useful experiment in “positive thinking”.

In the process of changing my focus I discovered that I didn’t want what I thought I wanted, that my usual course of action was usually only a half-measure at best or counter-productive at worst, and it also brought me renewed excitement and curiosity as to the broader applications of this technique.

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How to “positive”

If you’ve been following recent posts: the premise of “positive thinking” material is that our feelings and experience of reality reflect or mirror the quality of our thoughts.

If our thoughts are more positive then we feel better, and our reality changes accordingly.

The conventional view of life is the opposite: reality happens first and our thoughts and feelings react to this reality.

It’s not just a different sequence, it’s also much messier.

So for the sake of a cleaner and more meaningful view of life (not to mention happier), we can observe it from the standpoint of thoughts->feelings->reality.

Change your thoughts and you change your world.

But how? And why? And also what?

What is positive?

Looking closer at the positive thinking material, we might need to adjust our schema a little.

Because it turns out that our thoughts are also a reflection, in the same stream of causation as our subsequent feelings and reality.

You don’t control your thoughts directly, rather you receive them as a by-product of your focus or attention.

That’s why you can change the verbal content of your thoughts, yet still feel the same way about them and experience the same reality subsequently.

“I feel happy” can be just empty words.

There’s a potential disconnect between the verbal or sensory content of a thought and the… the… the what?

This is where things get slightly tricky.

Prior to our thoughts it’s very indistinct as to what is happening. It’s a non-physical realm and there’s nothing sensory or even conceptual to grab hold of.

So people who talk about this stuff are left trying to stick a label on it, a label that will never be entirely appropriate.

Positive thinking material tends to use words like “energy” and “vibration”. These are metaphoric labels drawn from a folk-level understanding of contemporary physics.

Traditional religion tended to use words like “spirit”, which is another metaphor drawn from a folk-level understanding of metaphysics and biology.

In either case, the label is used to designate an invisible something that exists prior to thought, and from which thoughts, feelings, and external reality come forth.

So we could say “Lord, send out your spirit, and renew the face of the Earth” with the old psalms.

But for many people these words have negative associations and are loaded with misunderstandings, social and familial baggage.

If you study theology you find out that words like “Lord” are also metaphors. Labels like “God” are attempts to designate something that transcends our language. Indeed, there are whole branches of theology and philosophy that discuss these issues.

Yet the pattern is there. It is a call for God to “renew the face of the Earth” through his spirit. It’s a call for one intangible thing to use another intangible thing to change reality for the better.

Terms like “energy” and “vibration” have their own baggage, but much much less than the traditional terms (for now).

You can find people explaining that what we call “God” is in fact “pure positive energy” or “the highest vibration”. We are (somehow) extensions of this energy. Yet we have the capacity to choose where to put our attention.

So within us is this pure positive energy, yet most of us spend our lives focusing on things that are less positive, or of a “lower vibration”.

Our thoughts, feelings, and reality are a reflection of this point of focus, and its positivity relative to the pure positive energy in us.

That might sound terrifyingly “New Age”, though technically I think it’s “New Thought”.

But the underlying pattern is basically the same as saying that the Holy Spirit now dwells within you, or that it is Christ who lives in you, or that you are remaining in God’s love, and all the associated observations and injunctions regarding what to think about, the movement of the will in God’s love, the fruits of the spirit, and so on.

What’s gone wrong?

There’s a line from Romans I really like:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

What’s gone wrong is that we have lost our connection with our source, with God, and so we live our lives conforming to the pattern of the world.

In positive thinking terms, we have turned our focus to our reality, which is an inversion of the true order.

Our reality is supposed to be the last reflection of our point of focus, the “energy” we are focusing on prior to thought. If we start focusing on our reality, then we get stuck in a kind of feedback-loop.

This is conventionally clear in instances of mental illness like anxiety and depression. When people are depressed they often lack the energy, motivation or desire to engage in activities that would otherwise make them feel a bit happier. Over time, chronic anxiety and depression can lead people to empty their lives of any sources of relief or happiness.

People’s empty or narrow lives can then contribute to their anxiety and depression, since they’ve eliminated anything that might have offered hope or reprieve.

That’s what happens generally when we conform to the pattern of this world, or wrongly treat reality as the determinant of our thoughts and feelings.

How to “positive”

For me it seems clear that I can direct my attention or point of focus to something that feels more “positive”. It’s a very small, subtle mental change.

But what I tend to do instead is focus on my experience, falling back into that feedback loop which keeps me trapped thinking the same kinds of thoughts, having the same kinds of feelings, and the same kinds of experiences.

The solution seems to be firstly to recognise that I’m doing this. Second, to remind myself of the correct order:

Focus -> Thoughts -> Feelings -> Reality

And not the other way around.

Finally, when I’m reminded of this, I feel a certain kind of detachment toward my reality.

It feels like I’m taking my reality a little less seriously, a little less intently.

That’s because my focus has changed to something that is not yet reflected in my reality, but will be in time.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.

I think that’s why there’s always an element of faith or trust required. Or perhaps just the realisation that you’re stuck in a feedback loop and would like it to change?

God, happiness, participation and transcendence

Transcendence and participation.

Those are two modes by which the divine is described relative to the world, everyday life, our ordinary reality.

Transcendence means that the divine is totally distinct, separate, and apart from reality.

For me this corresponds to the sense that there is nothing in life that approaches the meaning and significance of the divine. Not even close.

Participation means that although God transcends the world, the things of this world still participate in his being and his perfection to varying degrees.

There are different ways of defining participation, but for me this corresponds to the sense that emotions like love and joy are closer to God than emotions like fear and anger.

God may be transcendent, but things are still either closer to, or further away from him.

This is significant because people who grow up with a strong sense of the divine may, like melancholic idealists, end up disparaging the world as falling short of the divine in every possible way.

The world doesn’t have enough meaning, joy, purpose or love in it.

And our sense of divine transcendence keeps us locked in this perspective, because the gap between it and our everyday reality seems just too great.

Can we close the gap?

I believe we can. This is implied in the statement “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”.

It doesn’t negate or diminish the things of this world, but puts them in their rightful place.

My recent discoveries of the relationship between thoughts and emotions and my experience of reality show that the melancholic despair of finding meaning in this world is particular and individual.

The divine is not alienated from everyday life, nor is it withheld in isolation from our daily experiences, our emotions and our thoughts.

We participate in the divine not only in prayer or meditation but also in our thoughts throughout the day, the thoughts that shape how we feel, how we perceive, and what we experience.

The strictly transcendent view of the divine is very much “hiding a lamp under a bushel”, or putting new wine into an old wine skin.

But sorrow and misery – or rather the thoughts that create those feelings – are unlikely to dissipate just because we spend time thinking about a transcendent God.

Those thoughts need to extend to the aspects of life where we suffer or mourn or are frustrated, bored, angry, weary and need rest.

Bespoke Artisanal Handcrafted English

In writing my latest MercatorNet article I wanted to use the adjectival form of “penance”.

Penance is “punishment inflicted on oneself as an outward expression of repentance for wrongdoing.”

Such punishment could be described as….what exactly?

The first thought is “penitent”, but penitent is the adjectival (and nominal) form of “penitence”.

Penitence isn’t penance exactly, rather it’s “the action of feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong”.

Historically it looks like penitence had the adjectival form penitent, which then became the nominal form (“the penitent person” becomes simply “the penitent”).

The alternative adjectival form “penitential” came a bit later, borrowing directly from the Latin adjective.

Penance came indirectly from the same Latin as penitence, via Anglo-French, but there doesn’t appear to be any adjectival form available.

The pattern of penitence would suggest “penant” as the adjectival form of penance.

The only reference I can find to such a word is the nominal form in Chaucer: penant – one who does penance.

I ended up using “penant” as an adjective in my article. “Penant qualities”, for example, and I have to say I’m unrepentant.

Sackcloth and ashes on Valentine’s Day

My latest article at MercatorNet is inspired by the fortuitous coincidence of Valentine’s Day and the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday, a day of penance and the beginning of the penitential season of Lent:

The flip side of humiliating oneself with public acts of penance is that we no longer have much of a stake in the prestige and demands of social status.

The worldly values that make sackcloth and ashes humiliating and therefore penant are themselves abjured when we remember who and what we truly are.

Worldly humiliation becomes genuine humility, reflected even in the Latin root of the word humble, from humus meaning ‘earth’ or ‘soil’.

True humility lies in knowing that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. All our worldly affairs, striving, and accomplishments, but also our troubles, fears and dilemmas are but dust.

But this would still be a bit of a downer if that was all there was to life. Our relationships might all be dust, but that doesn’t mean your romantic dinner should turn to ashes in your mouth.

https://www.mercatornet.com/above/view/sackcloth-and-ashes-on-valentines-day

 

Your world is a reflection

I came across a Goethe quotation:

All that happens is symbol, and as it represents itself perfectly, it points to the rest.

Which, if I’m right, is close to my own observation that all the elements of my experience reflect meaningfully my own inner life.

Chasing it down, I came across this book which seems to affirm my interpretation of the quotation, adding another from Coleridge:

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem

Symbolical, one mighty alphabet.

I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions that my experience mirrors, reflects, or symbolises my “inner world” for want of a better term. Accordingly, attempts to change the outer world without changing the inner world tend to fail.

We can end one relationship and end up in another just like it. We can sell a house with too many limitations and find that our new house has its own limitations that elicit the same unhappy feelings in us.

Except they don’t elicit those feelings, they mirror them.

I’ve been reading a bit of “positive thinking” and “law of attraction” material, looking for further insights into this pattern I’ve discovered for myself.

Much of it concurs in practice with aspects of contemporary psychology and philosophy of mind. There are also overlaps with religious philosophy and theology, which is not so surprising considering that these “New Thought” movements grew from Christian roots.

What I’d like to do with this post is clarify my own perspective, combining things I have read and things I have observed, for the sake of improving my own experience.

What’s going on?

As stated above, my experience or “outer world” tends to mirror and reflect my “inner world”.

This reflective quality lies in the emotional salience of experiences conforming to the emotional register of my inner world.

For example, I’ve struggled for years in learning a martial art. The outward struggle to learn the art corresponded to negative emotions in my inner world.

The conventional view is that I felt bad because I couldn’t practice the way I wanted to practice or achieve my personal goals.

But the truth is that both the outer experience and the inner emotion were a reflection of my own thoughts about training, martial arts, my self, and my personal goals.

Thoughts and emotions

Your emotions are a natural response to your thoughts or beliefs.

We feel fear when we think something bad is happening or about to happen.

We feel sorrow or sadness when we think something is wrong and we can’t fix it.

We feel anger when we think something has been unjustly perpetrated against us.

We feel love when we think something is good, in proportion to its goodness.

We feel joy when we think those good things are present.

Conventional psychological therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy attempt to teach people to challenge and correct their thoughts and beliefs and thereby reduce anxious and depressed emotional responses.

But conventional methods tend to focus on the truth-value of thoughts. The idea is that external reality is prior; our beliefs should accord with external reality. People suffer anxiety and depression because they have developed unhelpfully negative thoughts that do not match external reality.

This approach has a lot of merit. But in a modern psychological context mental health and mental illness are largely determined by one’s capacity to function in everyday life. Many people fall through the cracks because they are able to function, even if they are not happy.

For a melancholic especially, this idea of making one’s thoughts more realistic is liable to increase rather than decrease depressed and anxious emotions. A melancholic can’t “realistically” live without idealism and meaning, yet that idealism and meaning is implicitly rendered subjective and arbitrary by a “realist” approach to cognition.

People are afraid of being “unrealistically” happy. But that fear is itself a response to thoughts about reality coming back to bite you in the arse because you were feeling undeservedly happy.

Getting past the emotion-thinking circularity

The better “law of attraction” material, such as Abraham/Esther Hicks, focuses not so much on “how to get your stuff”, but on how to change your thoughts consciously in order to enjoy a better emotional state, with the subsequent promise that external circumstances will shift accordingly.

Hicks refers to emotions as a “guidance system” that helps you determine whether or not a particular thought is in alignment with your “inner being” or “Source energy” or God, and hence also in accord with your genuine desires.

Hicks emphasises that the point is to feel good or feel better, not to be realistic or true. If given the choice between a “true” thought and a thought that feels good, we should choose the latter over the former.

There’s merit to this advice, because our capacity to determine the truth-value of our thoughts is tenuous in the first instance, and even more so when we are experiencing negative emotions.

So focus on thoughts that “feel good” or “feel better” at least, and as a result you will begin to feel better and eventually feel good. As you begin to feel better, the thoughts accessible to you will also change for the better, creating a virtuous circle of better feeling thoughts.

But for people who are accustomed to suppressing emotions, there’s a heightened risk of simply overlaying negative emotions with positive ones, or further suppressing negative emotions.

That’s why Hicks advises not to attempt to change one’s emotional state too rapidly. You can’t go from depressed to joyful in an instant.

Care is warranted, and for me it helps to get away from the circularity of assessing thoughts by how they feel, in order to accomplish a change in feeling.

One way to diminish this circularity is to recognise that we can’t control our feelings. Our feelings or emotions change automatically. For me, this mirrors my realisation with weight loss: body weight is an indirect outcome of food intake and exertion. Being overweight should not be viewed as a problem, because it is (in most cases) a natural and healthy response to unnatural and unhealthy behaviour.

By analogy, we should not view our negative emotions as bad or problematic. Our negative emotions are good and natural and healthy, assuming they are in response to negative thoughts and beliefs.

What this means is that we can let go of the fixation on how we feel, trusting that our emotions will take care of themselves provided we take care of the thoughts we are thinking.

How do we assess thoughts?

If that is the case, the question then arises: how do we assess our thoughts if not on the basis of how they feel, or their purported truth-value?

In mysticism we see an especially melancholic impulse to take the highest and most profound spiritual state, and from that stand-point resist any lesser thoughts.

This is presented in some sects as taking up the deeper states of meditation and carrying them into everyday life. In Christian mysticism it is the spirit or Christ in us that purifies and transforms the “outer man” and the external world.

In the Hicks material, better-feeling thoughts are implicitly closer to the perspective of our “inner being” or “Source” or God. In light of this, we can suggest two approaches to assessing and changing one’s thoughts: by ascending step by step according to which thoughts feel better, or by finding an approach to a transcendent, numinous spiritual state, and letting that state transform or repel incommensurate thoughts.

In fact Hicks does suggest both approaches, ranging from working to improve one’s thoughts on specific subjects, to focusing on subjects that are already informed by positive thoughts, to finally meditating without thought in order to have no resistance.

It’s plausible that different personality types or temperaments may find different approaches more conducive. Regardless, I have to admit that my all-or-nothing tendencies and my past interest in mysticism incline me to some form of the latter option.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”

The practice of love

Devotional mysticism is very appealing because it teaches that we can go through life immersed in a genuine and profound sense of love for God, for others, for ourselves and the whole of life.

This divine love is presented as the source of meaning, a deeper reality, a holy presence in which we live – even if we are not aware of it most of the time.

The poet Kabir likened us to a fish in water who complains of nothing to drink.

As he writes in another poem:

O seeker,

Where are you vainly looking for me,

For I am neither in your pilgrimage nor in your idols,

Not in your temples, not in your mosques,

Not on the holy river banks at Kasi,

Nor in silent lonely spots in the Himalayas,

Not in penances nor the routine of prayers,

I am not in fasts, nor in rituals,

Nor in renunciation even can I be found.

Do you not see my friend,

Who seeks me so earnestly, far and wide,

That I am here, beside you,

Where are you vainly looking for me

Who am here, close at hand,

Right within you,

To be found in no more than a moment,

If you ever care to believe,

Ever care to look. 

I read so many mystics when I was younger, it all blurred together, and I took from it what I wanted to see – which was an all-or-nothing effort of will to transcend the “ordinary” world.

I thought the practice of devotion was supposed to supplant all desires with a single one, and make us immune to the daily struggles of existence.

But that’s not really how it works.

I mean, it kinda is. Like a lot of mysterious things it makes sense in hindsight, but the descriptions don’t especially help you get there.

That might be because everyone is resisting it in their own ways. So even if someone tells you straight out “this is what you need to do…” you likely won’t listen.

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”, but more likely the teachers were all around you all the time waving their hands in front of your face but you were too stubborn and too stupid to open your eyes.

Or maybe that’s just what it took to get you there.

Regardless, divine love is supposed to be transcendent, unconditional, and pure. What that means in practice is that there’s no obstacle to love, if you choose to practice it. There are no necessary preconditions, no requirements, no milestones, no knots to untie…unless you make there be.

If you sit at a piano playing low notes, there’s nothing to stop you playing high ones instead. You just have to do it. You don’t even have to understand how it works and why, though some of you will probably want to.

You just need to choose, for the sake of feeling better, to practice feeling love rather than the other feelings you’re more used to.

The whole idea that we’ll feel better once we do this or finish that, or achieve our goals…No, unconditional love means you can practice it with no preconditions; and if you don’t practice it you’ll never get there.

Turning J and P on their heads

I’ve gone into a lot of depth in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, albeit haphazardly as befits a P-type, right?

But lately I’ve been looking at the simpler measure of the P and the J, and what that means for how we ideally function in the world.

I’m an INFP, who has ended up sharpening his J approach to life in order to “get s*** done!”, because if I stay in P mode I’m afraid life will just blend into some kind of seamless, mysterious whole without my understanding or control.

Actually that sounds kinda nice.

My wife is a genuine J type, yet somehow we’ve ended up inverted. I’m usually in control, deciding what we’ll do and when we’ll do it, while she’s been seemingly content to follow my lead and see what happens.

Which has worked. But it’s been a lot of work, with each of us using our weaker functions to get through life.

Embrace your P-ness

Logically the answer is to revert to our genuine types. That means I should relax, accept that I’m intrinsically disorganized by worldly standards, and let my wife take up some of the slack.

Become the feckless hippie my MBTI results suggest I ought to be, (or more flattering but therefore less therapeutic, the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog…thanks INTJ!)

But it’s really hard to go against years of training and conditioning.

It’s really hard to stop J-ing, to just let go and not even write blog posts summing up the awesome insights that come to me.

And perhaps that’s because the simple P-J message is a little too simple after all.

It’s meant to tell us which of our functions is extroverted – the perceiving one, or the judging one.

But if you’re an introvert, your extroverted function will be auxiliary, subordinate to and weaker than your dominant.

So I may be a P-type, but since my dominant function is a judging function, I’m not the most P that a P could be.

Likewise, my wife is a J-type, but her dominant is a perceiving function, so she’s not the most J kind of J either.

As one site puts it:

IP types have a dominant introverted judging function, which will make them seem more like judgers (J types) than other P types.

And for IJ types vice-versa.

Typical of an INFP (apparently), these kinds of renovations of my theoretical model come easily and frequently, but they don’t change the underlying “feel” I have for what is important.

When I act or think like a J-type, I might be relying too much on my inferior Te (extroverted Thinking) function, as I previously thought, but another way of looking at the whole situation is that I have unhealthy Fi (introverted Feeling) pushing me to accomplish things.

When too many possibilities proliferate, I get tired and want to put away my MBTI toys because I sense that achieving perfect understanding will not yield proportional benefits to me.

Yet this in turn reflects an aspect of my inferior Te – taking single variables and enlarging them until they seem to account for everything. Yes! That’s the one-single mistake I make! (ironic laughter).

The good news is that for an introverted Feeler the actual thoughts don’t need to be nailed down. Despite my past attempts to find all the answers to everything and be right all the time, I don’t really need to know anything, so long as I know how I feel.

True self vs Ego

Mysticism from different traditions tends to hold some concept of a dichotomy within us, a division between the ego and the true self.

I’ve mentioned previously the Upanishadic model of “the two birds in a tree” where one bird – the individual self – eats and enjoys the fruit, while the other bird – the supreme self – simply watches.

An analogous idea appears in St Paul: “Therefore we do not lose heart; but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” And: “I delight in the law of God according to the inner man.”

Various Christian mystics wrote about Christ being born within us, or finding the part of the soul where God dwells in us.

The point is that our existence is dichotomous, and that we err in identifying with the external, individual, active self rather than the spiritual, internal self that is united with or conformed to the divine.

Likewise familiar analogies that deal with individuality versus unity: We think we are individual, separate, alone, yet this is like looking at the waves of the ocean as though they had independent existence rather than being extensions, creations, or manifestations of the one underlying water.

Perhaps that aligns also with the parable of the man who sold all his possessions to buy a field where he had found a hidden treasure; or the merchant who bought the pearl of great price.

What the mystics point to is an underlying experience of unity that somehow exists in opposition or counterpoint to external multiplicity. The problem of “worldliness” is that the part of our mind adept to dealing with multiplicity comes to dominate. We live as though the self we construct in relation to others is our true self.

In Buddhist terms, we mistake it for an enduring self, when in fact it exists as the illusory product of multiple interactions. And in seeking to maintain the illusion of continuity, we suffer.

When I was younger I managed to find this deeper sense of unity, but it was always interrupted by the ego – the externally-oriented mind. I couldn’t work out how to bring the peace and contentment of the true self into everyday life.

I also had the mistaken idea that the only way to be free was to annihilate, overcome, or somehow destroy that ego. It didn’t help that the patterns I had established were quite negative.

I conflated many different issues, thinking that the solution to all suffering was to let go of that worldly mind and find the “hidden gem” that lay beneath or behind ordinary reality.

Now, as I’m learning to become more positive and optimistic, it doesn’t seem like an all-or-nothing proposition anymore.

Traditions that emphasise suffering and misery left an enduring impression that the ego must be intrinsically evil, that we will never be complete unless we completely eradicate it.

But with a less desperate or afflicted ego, I’m beginning to feel like it doesn’t have to be destroyed (nor could it ever really be). The ego is just the part of the mind that interacts with the multiplicity of life. Without it we couldn’t function at all. It is made of responsiveness to external circumstances.

If the true self is always content, it doesn’t follow that the ego must be always suffering and struggling.

What I’ve observed recently is that we can begin to reconcile the two. We can teach ourselves (the ego) that the true self is always there, that we can always retreat to it, take refuge in it, find contentment at any time.

We can teach ourselves that the ego doesn’t need to be destroyed, that it is just a way of being which should be balanced and supported by the deeper, more enriching way of being that we call the true self, or prayer, or communion with God.

And this true self can lift up the ego, draw it higher, help it become more positive. It can tread more lightly, being assured of the constant presence behind it.

This might all sound confusing, speaking of ourselves as if we exist in two distinct modes, or with two separate entities.

In the past I found it very confusing, and thought I needed to understand it in order to “do” it properly.

But now all I’m trying to do is to feel better, to find satisfaction and contentment and peace and happiness in the present moment. And in that context the dynamic becomes clear.

I can close my eyes and feel better immediately. Open them, and the world intrudes with all kinds of pressing demands and worries.

But those demands and worries only press on me because I have mistaken beliefs about myself and the world.

The truth is that I’m better off taking refuge in that deeper part of me than in trying to manage and control my external reality. My external reality changes according to the filter of my thoughts and feelings, including my beliefs about the nature of the ego, and my true self.

Sin and Feeling

One of the things that bothered me about the typical definition of sin in Christianity is the focus on actions and eternal law.

“Law” is a metaphor. God doesn’t have laws any more than our legal system has a “spirit”.

But it’s a strong metaphor because what we call “law” stands like a guide and a container for our actions and choices.

Perhaps you could say that human law, justice, judgement and punishment are a reflection of this divine thing that is properly nameless and wordless but must be translated into human terms if we are to talk about it.

Sin as action

Sometimes we do things that we know (or come to learn) are wrong, and we struggle with our own conscience over them. In fact moral theology has many caveats to this basic dynamic that include the formation or malformation of the conscience, the broader context of culpability, and so on.

A good judge takes into account all kinds of extenuating and aggravating circumstances.

But sin itself never really spoke to me in this context of action and law and judgement.

Sin as state

I’ve been thinking about it lately because someone asked me a question regarding sin, confession, and the problem of psychogenic illness and temperament.

I suspect the problem is that long-term anxiety and depression, and the temperament that predisposes me to these states, deny me any clear sense of the path before me, or that the root cause of my problems is ultimately my own transgressive actions.

If you can see the path, then yes you will know when you’ve deviated from it.

But if you can’t see the path, then being told that your actions are the root cause of your suffering is about as helpful as being blamed for being lost in a fog.

That’s not to say that I lack a sense of actions that are transgressive or immoral. Rather, the root cause of my suffering in life was not obviously related to any particular action or disposition.

It’s as if everyone was saying “just stay on the path and you’ll be fine. And even if you step off the path, you can return because God is forgiving”. Meanwhile I’m nodding politely while wondering where this path is exactly.

Finding the path

I think my temperament, and my Feeling function in particular, conceives of the world in a different way.

That’s probably why I was drawn to Eastern religions in my youth. Dharma is basically the same as Eternal Law, and the Dao is basically the way, but each has a richer, more substantial context in relation to the divine. Not that Christianity is really any different, it’s just a question of emphasis:

Do you emphasise God as judge and divine legislator? Or do you emphasise God as the path, the “way” itself, the outer boundaries of which are roughly marked with moral warnings?

Before I learned any Christian philosophy or theology, it seemed obvious to me that the moral law was the outermost perimeter of a deeper spiritual reality. Clinging to the moral law was like going to a beautiful mansion in the hills, and then stopping just inside the fence.

Yes, if you want to live in God’s house you can’t go outside the fence, but why on earth would you? Do you sit comfortably in a friend’s living room, loving their company, yet continually fretting that you might any moment fall off the edge of their property?

Private prayer

I think a lot of this goes unsaid in people’s personal relationship with God. People yearn to feel connected to God somehow, and that’s what is really important.

And some types or temperaments are completely fine with the idea that their actions help or hinder this relationship, and that confession or asking for and receiving forgiveness is the best way to remedy that relationship.

For these people, it makes sense to promote concepts of sinful action, eternal law, and forgiveness as the core dynamic of God’s interaction with the world.

But if you’re lost and living in a fog, it might be due to a number of factors that don’t necessarily fall under the standard definition of sin.

It might be the result of other people’s sins. Or it could be a kind of sin that isn’t commonly known or understood.

From a melancholic/introverted-Feeling perspective, there’s not much point trying to confess a Feeling. Yet this strong Feeling function so overshadows everything else that it not only blots out our sense of the divine, not to mention happiness, but it also obscures our own role in giving rise to this obstacle.

That’s what gave me this intense thirst for understanding. The hope of understanding my condition brought knowledge, insight, wisdom, to the fore rather than moral uprightness, sin, or forgiveness.

A person lost in a fog doesn’t need forgiveness, they need clarity. They need to know the lay of the land so they can stop falling into holes. They need a light, and in that light they can find the path.