Repentance for the disenchanted

I succumbed to disenchantment at a young age and took for truth my fear that there was nothing magical or mysterious in this world.

That’s what led me to investigate religion. Not the outer form but the inner essence, the mystics and sages and saints who performed strange feats and spoke of an utterly different relationship with reality.

I divided life into the sacred and the mundane, the mysterious and the miserable.

Yet this very division was an error that made most of life a misery to me, a self-fulfilling prophecy of disenchantment as I tried to push back against the banality around me.

Turning mysticism inside out

All the mystics spoke of a transformed vision of reality. They went to the very heart of existence and their eyes were opened to the true beauty of all things.

I tried to follow the same path, but my experiences were fleeting, ironically because I was so desperate for that transformation.

Like a clingy guy who pushes people away with his neediness, I was so fierce in my disenchantment that even God couldn’t make me appreciate this “ordinary” existence.

Even now I take for granted my deep antipathy for modern life. I’ve written screeds that only touch upon my full disdain for modern ugliness and meaninglessness, projecting my own unhappiness onto an entire planet.

All the this time I never thought disenchantment might be my fault, something I was doing rather than being done to me.

Too many people talk about having to grow up and accept harsh realities of life, it can’t be just me that resents and despairs of it, right?

No, it’s not just me. But that doesn’t make it the truth either. A delusion can be shared but that doesn’t make it reality.

I’m the one who chose to see the world that way, and of course I found evidence to support my choice.

It may have been an unconscious choice but it was still a choice, and one I repeated over and over for years.

Forgiving reality

Forgiveness might not be the right word but forgiving reality for being mundane, crappy, ugly, and bland goes some way to realising that maybe it isn’t like that after all.

Repentance might not be the right word either, but perhaps we disenchanted cynical and disillusioned people can accept that this very attitude of ours is what keeps us stuck in an unwanted reality.

I’m the one focusing on the ugliness and banality around me. I’m the one telling a story about a bleak and empty world. I’m the one wishing life was different and constantly reminding myself “but it’s not!”

I’m the one who approached mysticism as a way to transform the unwanted reality that I myself created.

And I’m also the one who undermined every moment of transcendence, quickly checking to see if things had “changed” yet.

In the Abraham Hicks material that’s called “keeping score” and it tends to undermine any actual progress in feeling better.

Feeling better about life

There’s a subtle yet profound difference between clinging to a problem and receiving a solution.

Often people sound like they are wanting a solution when in fact they just want to reiterate their problems.

But after a while it becomes obvious.

It’s obvious to me that my focus has been firmly on the “problem”, my unwanted aspects of life.

I’ve lived and breathed disenchantment, mistaking it for truth and reinforcing my own powerlessness and despair.

And how was that working out for me?

It’s time to take a deep breath and appreciate that the disenchantment was in my thoughts alone.

I create my reality, and by focusing on thoughts of disenchantment and banality I created more of the same.

But I also have the power to change my focus. I can find thoughts that match the enchantment, wonder, and excitement I have yearned for.

I can re-enchant reality as easily as finding thoughts that feel good to me.

A good place to start would be the exact opposite of the unwanted. If I don’t want disenchantment and banality then what do I want? What story would I prefer and to tell?

And if the answer is “I don’t know” then that right there was the real problem all along. Not reality, not banality, not other people, but my own unfamiliarity with the stuff of my desires.

Is there ‘more’ to life than enjoying it?

When people told me that the purpose of life was enjoyment I used to feel let down.

I felt there had to be more to life than just enjoying it.

But I never found the “more” I was searching for. And I could never shake the suspicion that this mysterious “more” was just a different form of enjoyment.

Why did I react so badly to the idea of enjoying life? Isn’t enjoyment prima facie a wonderfully desirable thing?

In hindsight i can see two, interrelated, reasons.

The first is that I was very unhappy from early childhood onward. While there were lots of things I enjoyed, the struggles and conflicts of home life were firmly in the foreground of my experience.

So by the time I started wondering about the meaning of life I already had a very negative outlook and had trained myself out of enjoyment.

The second reason I didn’t like being told that the meaning of life was enjoyment was that I didn’t see much to enjoy in the lives of the people who were telling me this!

To my mind they were satisfied with very little…much too little to convince me that their “enjoyment” would give me the meaning I sought.

But that was simply an error in my understanding: they weren’t telling me to enjoy their lives, but to enjoy my life.

The power of big contrast

Having spent twenty years searching for that elusive “more” to life, I can see that I was in fact digging myself deeper by constantly reiterating and reinforcing my negative thoughts and feelings.

In the Abraham Hicks system negativity is presented under a positive aspect as “contrast”.

Contrast refers to anything unwanted that sparks within us a desire for more. Big contrast or persistent focus on unwanted experience gives us a proportionately strong desire for something better.

So even if we have suffered, the good news is that the suffering translates into “treasure in heaven”, drawing us to an even greater happiness.

Hence my “mistake” of prolonged and obsessive focus on my own misery, anxiety and depression sparked within me an extremely powerful desire for real enjoyment.

With this is mind we can let go of regrets or dismay about the past. While I could have turned to happiness much earlier in life, it would not have been such an epic contrast to the unhappiness that I’ve endured and self-inflicted.

What do you enjoy?

It turns out the “more” I was looking for was really just more enjoyment of life.

It’s up to us as individuals to find out what form that takes. In fact for myself I would say I have a very strong, yet-unfulfilled desire to find out what my enjoyment looks like.

Though life rolled on for those twenty years, I felt as though I had deferred the question of enjoyment until after I had found the answers to my questions.

I wanted to know the meaning of life before I committed myself to really living it.

And now it turns out that the answer is just to enjoy it, and the way to enjoy it is by feeling better about life as it is right now.

Overcoming ‘ordinary’

I used to have a strong repugnance toward anything that felt mundane or ‘ordinary’.

But lately I’ve come to recognise that this is really about my own unhappy formative years, and the fear of reliving that experience for the rest of my life.

It’s the sense of having grown up in an ordinary middle-class home that was actually dysfunctional, and equating dysfunction with everything mainstream and ordinary.

But it’s also about the yearning for “more” and quickly rejecting anything that felt like “same old”.

Yet if we bear in mind the Abraham teaching that we get more of what we are focused on, then my insistence on avoiding my past experience only guarantees I will find more of it.

We can’t remove things from our experience by pushing against them, only by choosing something else to focus on.

Finding a new normal

It doesn’t really matter if my life is ordinary or not, because the only reason I feared the ordinary was that I equated it with feeling bad.

But everything in my life can be viewed in either a wanted or an unwanted aspect. There is always a path to appreciation and immediate relief no matter where I am.

Who cares if your life looks ordinary to you or others? All that matters is you enjoy it. And who decides what is ordinary? What is your comparison point and scope? A middle-class Australian gen-Y perspective of ordinary is actually incredibly narrow and specific!

Rather than being hampered by a need to overcome the ordinary, I can come at all of life with the aim of enjoying it as it is, and as it will be, confident that my focus on enjoyment will lead me further down that happy path.

And freed from an obsession with the ordinary, who knows where the path of enjoying life will take me?

The things I learned on my spiritual quest

I started my spiritual quest 20 years ago. That quest is pretty much at an end, so what did I learn along the way? What would I now consider worth sharing with others?

In the beginning I thought it was simply a matter of reading the right books and following their instructions. I set out to compare and contrast the different religious traditions’ essential spiritual teachings and try to glean from them the essence of a unified spiritual path.

But the most important lesson is entirely the opposite:

a spiritual path must illuminate our individual circumstances, qualities, and experiences.

While I sought the one single universal path, instead I discovered over and over again that what worked for others didn’t work for me.

It’s a lot like learning a martial art or Yoga: I thought that if I just did the training I would eventually master it. But while the training theoretically works the same for everyone, in practice we aren’t all at the same starting point.

With old injuries, underlying weaknesses, bad habits, varying degrees of talent and insight… training can actually do more harm than good for some people.

After many years of training I eventually went to see a sports physio who immediately identified some aspects of movement that were preventing me from fully benefiting from the training.

I’ve learned that the spiritual path is even more like this, to the point that good spiritual teaching assumes none of us is at the ideal starting point.

Individual differences: temperament

Temperament is the first and most significant domain of individual difference.

What works best for a melancholic will not suit a choleric and vice versa. What appeals to sanguines won’t appeal to phlegmatics.

Recently I’ve revisited the spiritual texts I read early in my search, only to discover that those formative guides were predominantly written by cholerics.

I took to heart the overly intellectual and comparatively unfeeling approach of choleric spiritual writers, equating spiritual growth with arcane musings and a disagreeable view of the world.

But a melancholic should instead listen to their feeling first and foremost. Cholerics who elevate understanding or insight over feeling probably don’t have strong feeling to begin with.

In fact, for some cholerics their personal journey is one of learning to embrace the thinking function and not rely on their inferior or tertiary feeling function. The very opposite of my journey as a melancholic-phlegmatic.

Upbringing

The second domain of individual difference is upbringing.

The combination of temperament and upbringing set the trajectory for how we live our lives. In hindsight the story I’ve lived thus far is so heavily influenced by my parents and grandparents…I live out the influences of my early life, both the positive and the negative.

For the first five years of my spiritual quest I had no idea that family relationships and an unhappy childhood played a role in my depression and anxiety let alone my spiritual path.

Now when I look at the writings of spiritual teachers, I take in not only their temperament but their early life. My own circumstances were unusual and so were theirs, but in radically different ways.

It doesn’t matter how good or genuine a spiritual teacher is, they are still an individual in their own circumstances with their own temperament and formative experiences. Their teachings speak first and foremost to their own reality.

It’s up to us as individuals to find what works, and while we may stumble upon a suitable path with ease, it helps to know our own temperament and circumstances from the beginning.

A melancholic with a domineering parent will have a very different path from a melancholic suffering abandonment and neglect, let alone any of the other temperaments under the same conditions.

Life circumstances

The third domain of difference is our station in life.

In the beginning I took for granted that spiritual teachers were naturally inspired to share their insights and wisdom with the world.

Later I went through a cynical stage of assuming anyone with a publishing contract and lecture circuit was financially motivated and not to be trusted.

But more significant than those extremes of credulity and cynicism is the simple reality of a person’s circumstances in life, most importantly my own circumstances.

Who I am, the way I live, what I do day-in and day-out, these are all peculiar to me. I have friends who live very different lives, let alone the spiritual teachers whose works I used to read.

I’m not saying we should disregard people who don’t live like we do; rather that we benefit from appreciating the differences between our worlds and our daily lives.

Esther Hicks is a 70 year old American with an international following who currently gives regular workshops in various American cities and on several cruises each year.

Anthony De Mello was an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist who gave retreats internationally.

Jiddu Krishnamurti was the one-time scion of the Theosophical Society, groomed and educated to be the next “World Teacher”. He gave public talks, published books and lived with friends in California.

St John of the Cross was a 16th Century Spanish monk who was imprisoned in a tiny cell by his fellow monks and given weekly lashings, during which time he composed his most famous poem!

The Dalai Lama was never my cup of tea, but again it’s important to recognise the profound differences in his daily life relative to the millions of people who read his books and look to him as a source of wisdom.

I’m not trying to invalidate the wisdom and experiences of these various people, but what they teach invariably cannot be separated or removed from who they are and how they live.

We can benefit from the wisdom of others, but not by imposing their teachings onto our own lives. In fact we can often understand their teachings much better if we understand the teacher’s perspective as well.

The only caveat I’d offer is that there are some people who by temperament would be perfectly content to follow a straightforward spiritual path, but might have been pushed by their upbringing to be innovative, unique, or to try to stand out. (I’m looking at you, phlegmatics!). For such people, it could be a welcome relief to just adhere to a routine they like and not worry about the details or the origins of their method.

What your own life can teach you

The Abraham Hicks material often reiterates that words don’t teach, only experience teaches. 

I can vouch for this in my own life, given the vast quantity and array of words I’ve read from many and varied teachers. It is only through my experience that I have come to learn what does and does not help me to feel better.

Indeed, it is only through my experience of feeling profoundly miserable for twenty years that I decided “feeling better” should be my goal.

While I’ve found the Abraham Hicks material to be tremendously helpful, it’s also because I was ready for it. Just like the sports physio’s advice, it’s only after the prolonged experience of struggle that I’ve decided I just want to feel better, and that would be enough for me.

So that constitutes the end of my 20 year spiritual quest, as I have come to accept and welcome feeling good in my own unique circumstances without trying to justify or reconcile myself to the myriad spiritual teachings and methods that I once turned to for answers.

Temperament theory: does 5 = 4+1?

This is mainly for commenter Josh, who thinks that the addition of a fifth temperament is a positive innovation over the traditional four temperaments.

I’ve written previously about the “fifth temperament”, which is the invention of a husband and wife team of Christian counsellors, Drs Richard and Phyllis Arno.

My objection to the creation of a fifth temperament is that it’s essentially an entirely new system that nonetheless uses terminology from the traditional four temperaments system.

This isn’t unusual. There are potentially infinite ways to slice up personalities and categorise them and many people have interpreted and used the traditional temperament theory in their own ways over the centuries.

But it’s simply not the case here that five is the original four plus one. You can’t cut a cake into four pieces and then “discover” a fifth piece. All you can do is cut the same cake into five instead, but now all the pieces will be different.

But is five better than four?

In China they have five elements. The Big Five factors of modern psychology have five factors. Even Ancient Greek cosmology actually has five elements if you include ether. So isn’t five a more appropriate number than four for a personality theory?

If you feel that five is a better number than four, then by all means use five. But that doesn’t change the historical fact that the traditional temperament system has always had four.

Why assume that the Greek system should match the Chinese one? Why not the other way around? Perhaps the Chinese five elements hampered their interpretation of temperament? Maybe they should embrace the more parsimonious four elements with regard to human temperament?

As for the Big Five – it’s not a temperament theory, merely a measure of personality traits. It doesn’t mean there are five types of personality. I’d love to see research into different personality types based on various permutations of the Big Five, since that would more closely approximate the purpose of the Four Temperaments theory. What I have found so far are people attempting to match the Big Five factors to MBTI functions: intuition seems to correspond to Openness, for example.

Regarding the Greek fifth element: according to wikipedia

“[in] ancient and medieval science, aether (Ancient Greek: αἰθήρ, aither), also spelled æther or ether and also called quintessence, is the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere.”

Aether was not part of the terrestrial sphere, perhaps why it was not included in the makeup of human temperament or biology.

Four is better than five

Four is better than five because it can be reduced to a two-factor analysis. Occam’s Razor inclines us to accept the more parsimonious solution.

The thousands of years of temperament observations continued into the modern era with various attempts at identifying the underlying biological basis of temperament and the high point of this research came with Jakob Henle’s proposal that temperament was reducible to inherent qualities of the individual nervous system: the relative ease of nervous excitability versus the duration of this activity.

Excitability and duration of impression provide a parsimonious two-factor biological basis for the four extremes of temperament:

Choleric – excitable with enduring impressions

Sanguine – excitable with fleeting impressions

Phlegmatic – unexcitable with fleeting impressions

Melancholic – unexcitable with enduring impressions

By contrast, the Arnos’ five temperaments theory evolved from the FIRO tool developed by William Schutz

based on the belief that when people get together in a group, there are three main interpersonal needs they are looking to obtain – affection/openness, control and inclusion

I have no strong opinion on the FIRO tool, but it should be obvious that it’s attempting to measure complex behavioural traits in interpersonal contexts. According to wikipedia, Schutz himself did not think the FIRO should be used to determine personality type:

Schutz believed that FIRO scores in themselves were not terminal, and can and do change, and did not encourage typology; however, the four temperaments were eventually mapped to the scales of the scoring system, which led to the creation of a theory of five temperaments.

The Arnos are the ones who mapped the four temperaments onto the FIRO tool, and subsequently decided a fifth temperament was necessary.

It’s a personal choice

People who like Arno’s theory might well argue that the creation of a “supine” temperament better or more usefully describes a group of people who were perhaps previously included as a subset of melancholic or phlegmatic.

But it could equally be due to a weakness in the original FIRO tool, or the fact that the FIRO was a much broader attempt to explain or quantify all human interaction, not to simply describe temperament.

Regardless, the so-called “Five Temperaments” is an amalgamation of the FIRO tool and the four temperaments concept, but should be considered a deviation from the traditional four temperaments framework.

Ultimately, it’s up to you if you want to subscribe to a particular theory of personality or temperament. But it’s also good to know what you are actually subscribing to.

I’ve found the four temperaments theory to be extremely powerful in categorising and understanding people. But at the same time, there are many superficial and inadequate renditions of the four temperaments out there. I can understand why some people might think the four need amending or supporting with other theories or tools.

I wouldn’t go so far as to innovate a new temperament, but I’ve found great benefit from Keirsey’s bridging of the four temperaments with the MBTI functions. Even so, there are aspects of Keirsey’s work that I don’t use. I use the MBTI to flesh out or add more detail to the four temperaments’ foundation. I don’t try to alter the four temperaments on the basis of the MBTI.

If anyone wants to argue that the “fifth temperament” is a legitimate and organic development of the traditional four temperaments theory, I would challenge them to present a case.

Stop doing that thing you keep doing

Our favorite analogy is the cork that bobs on the surface of the water. And when you hold it under the water, it is unnatural. It is natural for you to let go of it, and it is natural for it to bob. But when you take hold of a thought that does not feel good, and the negative emotion sweeps over you, you remain in an unnatural state for as long as you hold your attention upon it. – Abraham Hicks

I’ve been keeping a journal or notebook for a number of years now, where I write down the problems I’m dealing with and try to analyse them, look for solutions, or just get some perspective on them.

I’ve been doing this for a while but I wasn’t sure how long until today, when I found an old notebook from my Honours year in philosophy back in 2003, full of the kinds of personal musings and reflections that have since filled many notebooks and scraps of paper.

I opened it by chance to 19/03/2003 the exact day that I realised I was actually depressed, and had been for a long time. Up to that point I’d assumed everyone felt kinda the same way, and my personal struggles were just part of a bigger spiritual reality we all face.

The notes are so familiar. I wish I could say that they weren’t; yet the style and content barely changed in the 16 years that followed: analysing fears, worries, tension, hypervigilance, and trying to reconcile it all with the spiritual ideas that captivated me.

16 years of trying to work it all out, the frustration showing again and again but always returning to square one, as if I could make sense of it all…if only I could find the right question!

I get the feeling my life improved over those 16 years despite rather than because of my obsessive attempts to find an answer.

Because although every line of my past writing strives toward a satisfying conclusion that is never final, the truly lasting impression is in the tone.

It’s negative. Negatively framed, because I’m always trying to escape from misery and suffering; negatively directed because I’m unflinchingly self-critical lest I make the mistake of going easy on myself and shrinking from “hard truths”; and negatively realised because it never ever ended.

16 years of self-analysis and reflection didn’t arrive at an answer, but they did lend my negative thoughts powerful momentum.

Don’t go digging

One of the challenging messages of the Abraham Hicks material was that we aren’t well served by going digging for answers, focusing on our problems, or revisiting painful subjects.

This makes sense if you consider that our goal is to come into alignment with our inner being, the presence of God within us, and God doesn’t focus on unwanted conditions past, present, or future, real or only worried about.

Further, whatever we focus on becomes active in the filtering and creating of our reality. The more I focused on my suffering and misery, the more my suffering and misery persisted.

In the past year and a half I’ve been reading the Abraham Hicks material and using it to become less of a pessimist, and to actually enjoy my life. Yet my desire to “dig in” and analyse obstacles and problems persisted.

It’s slowly grown weaker, and finding this 16 year old notebook has given me the opportunity to see how little the analysis and “problem-solving” really contributed, other than to perpetuate itself.

The irony is that I don’t have better answers to the questions my past self was asking. I never did find the answers I was looking for. But I’ve quickly realised it wasn’t about the questions or the answers, but the awful and depressing thoughts I was so intently focused on.

Stop doing that thing you do

Abraham uses the analogy of a cork floating in the water to describe our emotional state. We would be bobbing happily at the surface, if only we didn’t focus on things that hold our cork under water.

If we aren’t finding alignment and appreciation in our lives, then we are doing something, maybe a couple of somethings, that keeps us from feeling better.

I’d often wondered what I was doing. I probably even wrote it down in hopes of finding the answer. I think I know now what it was!

So I’m going to set an intention to no longer repeat, rehearse, or reiterate problems and negative points of view, especially not to write them out and give them so much attention.

That in itself is a very encouraging and hopeful thought: that I have learned something after all. Not simply another run through the cycle of analysis and flawed conclusions, but a substantial change that brings relief and helps me feel better.

Are you living your purpose?

I used to long to find my purpose in life.

I imagined it as a place I was meant to be, a career I was meant to follow, an ideal or a teaching or talent that would bring me fulfilment in life if I just poured my whole self into it.

I thought I had found it in being a “problem-solver” of the intellectual kind. But however great it seemed at first, thinking for a living eventually grew old.

I wasn’t fulfilled by mastering complex ethical problems, and as my job in ethics came to an end I began to feel increasingly devoid of purpose and even prospects.

My grand spiritual quest was in stasis, my PhD ran into a brick wall, and the books I wrote didn’t provide the sense of purpose, direction, or income I’d hoped for.

The four temperaments taught me that ideals and meaning and therefore purpose in life were fundamental to my sense of self and my worldview. Yet thanks to my deeply pessimistic and world-weary outlook, I regarded these things as unreal.

Getting into positive thinking via the Abraham Hicks material has helped me enormously. But it only just occurred to me that I’ve still been looking at the world through the filter of my past disenchantment and despair of any real meaning or purpose.

What is purpose?

The real reason we want purpose is because we think it will feel good when we have it.

Try to analyse purpose and it loses its mystery.

Purpose is, after all, just an intention or a goal. It’s what you pro-pose or put forth.

But melancholics won’t be content with an arbitrary goal or a self-generated intention.

By our very temperament, we desire something greater and more powerful than ourselves, and that means something inherently mysterious.

That’s why all my attempted goals and paths lost their appeal as soon as I considered trying to make some kind of career out of them: what I sought was, by definition, to reduce them to predictable, repeatable and therefore non-mysterious processes or outcomes.

Mysterious power

And yet there was something I had encountered however briefly in my years of searching. I came upon it while trying to emulate the “acting without acting” of the Daoist canon. I think I hit upon it by accident and succeeded because there were no instructions, no real method, just a description and a feeling.

What I had was best described as a “mysterious power”, a product of faith, feeling, and intuition that I allowed intermittently to flow.

I found it again last night, trying to put my baby daughter to sleep.

I remembered the sense of ease, the feeling of alignment, the certainty (faith) that it would work because (mystery) I was aligning myself with this great power that creates, guides, and nourishes all things.

The feeling is most like those dreams where you discover you can fly just by focusing in a particular way with a kind of expectation and gentle certainty that allows you to find invisible footholds in the air, or simply levitate as easily as drawing in a deep breath.

It’s the feeling you get when you change ever so slightly the angle or focus with which you regard a familiar scene like your own living room. Everything changes and you suddenly appreciate it in a whole new light with a feeling of clarity and buoyancy like a gust of wind has filled the room and stirred everything in it.

Or like a lens suddenly coming into focus, and everything is sharp and crisp and you feel your control over that act of focusing, while everything else is securely in the flow of that mysterious power.

I never knew what to call it, and I tended to lose it in the past as soon as I ran into cold hard thoughts about “reality”.

But last night I allowed it to come to the fore, and with it came a shift in perspective. I wasn’t exhaustedly trying to get my daughter to sleep so my wife and I could relax, instead I was lovingly helping her to sleep so she could rest and refresh and grow.

With this mysterious power guiding me, buoying me and uplifting me I felt not only that I had the energy and the patience I needed, but also the sensitivity and the guidance to find the easiest and best path forward.

Better yet, that by staying in this feeling of power I was already on the right path, and everything else was coming together to make it work out perfectly.

Is purpose right for melancholics?

Whatever this thing is that I find fulfilling, it doesn’t match the idea of purpose. It’s much more like a way of being than an external goal – yet it is satisfying in the way that I always imagined an explicit purpose or direction would be.

It suits the melancholic longing for authenticity, meaning and the ideal.

So maybe that’s the purpose of life for a melancholic: to find authenticity, meaning, and the ideal; not for the sake of accomplishing other tasks, but as the goal in and of itself.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is a bit like living in a fog. You can hear everything going on around you, but you can’t really see where you are going. This can lead to worry and anxiety, but it is also what makes us desire the ideal – because the ideal is always right no matter what is going on around you.

And when you know how to act, how to be, then you can at last be authentically yourself.

The Thinking trap for INFPs (Melancholic-Phlegmatic)

As a child and teenager I wasn’t obviously good at anything. But I enjoyed reading and occasionally I had good insights or creative solutions to problems that arose within the home.

So at some point I was marked out as “intelligent” by my parents and some teachers, and that became part of my self-perception.

By High School I had internalised the message that I was intelligent but lazy, and needed to apply myself more.

But even then I knew that my intellect was somehow different to others who excelled at maths and physics. They seemed a lot more hard-headed and mentally quick.

My intelligence felt weird, with idiosyncratic peaks and troughs of ability.

Being a problem-solver

I studied philosophy at university – the ultimate generalist discipline – and my subsequent work in bioethics cemented my self-image as someone good at solving problems or “making sense” of complicated or confusing issues.

Along the way I cultivated all kinds of interesting and unusual topics, because I believed that my greatest attribute and value as a person lay in my thoughts and ideas: the way my mind worked.

Thinking too much

Yet all this time I’ve been a compulsive thinker. I think constantly, composing thoughts and opinions on all kinds of subjects day in, day out.

With strangers and acquaintances I’m reserved and reticent to speak, but with close friends and family I talk almost incessantly.

For me, this way of speaking is a learned behaviour. I taught myself to verbalise my incessant thinking process, and for many years my personality was comprised mostly of my “interesting topics” thought out-loud to others.

INFPs aren’t Thinkers

I remember visiting China years ago and being unable to communicate with all the new people I met. I felt terrible, like a non-person, because all my value was tied up in the content of my “interesting” thoughts and ideas.

In recent years I’ve come to accept that INFPs aren’t really “Thinkers” after all. I might be good with words and have some creative ideas…my whole outlook on life might be intriguing and different, but this is quite different from the standard model and expectations of an intellectual or a Thinker.

This wouldn’t really matter, except that I took to heart these expectations and in my own way I tried to push my intellect to the fore.

Do I think constantly because I enjoy it, or because I believe it’s my greatest value and best quality?

Honestly it’s the latter. If I stop thinking…I start to feel like a nobody. If I don’t communicate my thoughts, I start to feel very very ordinary.

But the irony is that the people closest to me don’t really value me for my ideas; they’re more likely to be annoyed by my incessant sharing of my thoughts.

And when people do find value in what I’ve written it feels completely normal and straightforward, and I feel happy for them.

In other words, I’ve greatly outlived the usefulness and gratification that once came from being told “You have great ideas!” or the sense of identity that came from being told I was intelligent and should apply myself.

A more authentic self

I would like to put away my thinking, problem-solving, and interesting-idea hats. I’m tired of wearing them, and I don’t need them anyway.

I never used to talk that much, back when I was happiest. And my friends never looked to me for ideas or points-of-view.

And even when good ideas come and they are appreciated, it’s easy and cannot be forced. Like the augur reading omens or the seer having visions, it’s just there. Not a process but a perception.

So don’t be lured into the thinking trap, fellow INFPs. Our value doesn’t lie in trying to imitate our INTP cousins. Whatever insights we have are eclectic and unpredictable, not the careful analysis of introverted Thinking, but the broad strokes of introverted Feeling.

It’s like the difference between a surgeon and a shaman, but no one will offer you a career pathway to being a shaman.

What do we look like when we stop trying to imitate other temperaments? That’s the question we can only answer for ourselves, not by thinking, but by allowing it to happen.

In hindsight, the ideas and subjects I gravitated towards weren’t “interesting” to me, but meaningful, and it’s this strong but ineffable sense of meaning that lies at the heart of the INFPs authentic self.

Choosing how we feel

Having the attitude that “everything is perfect exactly as it is” feels good.

For melancholics in particular it may be an expression of providence: the knowledge that all things are working towards the good.

If all things are working towards the good, and we know it, then it follows that everything is perfect exactly as it is.

Not perfect in the sense that it is complete, but perfect in the sense that we are where we are meant to be, everything is as it is meant to be.

This isn’t a question of judgement or assessment, it’s about attitude and feeling.

If you have the attitude of recognising everything is perfect as it is, then you will feel that everything is perfect as it is.

And by contrast, if you don’t feel good, you must be thinking or believing that not everything is perfect.

We see this reflected in the story of the fall of man. Genesis tells us of everything God created “and God saw that it was good”.

Everything was good, and the first humans lived in paradise, right up until the moment they accepted the serpent’s contention that things were not perfect after all.

The first humans heeded the serpent’s doubt, and that was the cause of their fall.

False beliefs as choice

If we don’t feel good, then we must not be thinking that all is perfect as it is.

For years I sought to identify such thoughts and correct them. Talk myself out of my fears and worries and doubts.

But although it can be helpful to change such beliefs, it isn’t necessary to convince ourselves that they are false, or to try to work out the truth.

Otherwise there is potentially no end to all the little beliefs that would need correcting.

Instead we can view these bad-feeling thoughts not as the cause of our unhappiness but as reflections or elaborations of a bad-feeling focus.

For example, a depressed person can come up with many negative thoughts that match the feeling of depression and hopelessness.

These thoughts aren’t necessarily stored up in our heads, rather we uncover or create more and more of them to match our depressed focus.

Sometimes changing a belief or thought changes our focus as well, but it’s not always the most effective way to feel better.

By contrast a change in focus will always cause us to feel better (or worse depending on what we focus on).

It is possible to recognise that when we don’t feel good, we are harbouring an attitude of doubt or fear instead of an attitude that everything is perfect.

With practice we can actually change our focus from a bad feeling state to a good feeling one, without having to argue with or analyse or reprogram our thoughts.

Before thought

In the Abraham Hicks material, thought and “vibration” are used interchangably. They might just as well have used the word “spirit” but that it is too loaded with preconceptions.

Our verbalised thoughts and beliefs are expressions or elaborations of the “vibration” we are focused on. We translate this vibration into thought, and it is further reflected in our feelings and then our external circumstances.

An analogy from the Abraham Hicks material is that of a radio dial that controls the frequency our radio is tuned to. If you change the frequency (vibration) you receive different signals (thoughts).

Learning to control our focus in this way is superior to trying to argue with ourselves or debate our thoughts in hopes of shifting that dial. You could petition a classical station to play more jazz, but it’s more effective just to turn the dial until you find a station where jazz is already playing.

Choosing to feel good

I initially struggled with the idea of ignoring things that feel bad, or getting off difficult subjects.

My negative feelings were heavy and persistent, so I assumed I needed something equally firm and concrete to dislodge them.

But feeling good is light and easy. You don’t need to dislodge or destroy bad feelings, just stop focusing on them and they’ll dissipate.

I’m coming around to the idea that I don’t need to prove to myself (or others) that everything is perfect as it is, because this attitude just feels really really good.

I don’t need to logically or even illogically convince myself that fears and doubts are unwarranted, because I’ve gradually accepted through experience that it feels much better to feel good than to feel bad, and it seems that I can choose to focus in ways that feel good rather than feeling bad.

So whatever issue seems to conflict with “everything is perfect exactly as it is” can be deactivated. I can simply focus back on perfection and ease in the same way that I can relax a tense muscle.

We are the ones who determine the contents of our own minds by virtue of what we focus upon. For most of us this is only a theoretical control, but with practice it can become actual.

The ideal is to be able to feel good, find relief, soothe ourselves by choosing where we focus, and thereby create a happier and more fulfilling reality for ourselves and become part of a happier and more fulfilling reality for others.

Revisiting ‘Awareness’ by Anthony De Mello

Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence.

Awareness – Anthony De Mello

I’ve decided to revisit the book that got me started on my spiritual journey twenty years ago: Awareness by Anthony De Mello S.J.

Even the best psychologist will tell you that, that people don’t really want to be cured. What they want is relief; a cure is painful. Waking up is unpleasant, you know. You are nice and comfortable in bed. It’s irritating to be woken up.

What struck me immediately is how negative it is. The focus is consistently on how asleep we all are, how resistant we are to waking up, and how we cling to our precious illusions and attachments.

Do you think you help people because you are in love with them? Well, I’ve got news for you. You are never in love with anyone. You’re only in love with your prejudiced and hopeful idea of that person….

“How could you let me down when I trusted you so much”? you say to someone. Did you really trust them? You never trusted anyone. Come off it! That’s part of society’s brainwashing. You never trust anyone. You only trust your judgment about that person. So what are you complaining about?

The fact is that you don’t like to say, “My judgment was lousy”. That’s not very flattering to you, is it? So you prefer to say, “How could you have let me down”? So there it is: People don’t really want to grow up, people don’t really want to change, people don’t really want to be happy.

The whole book is an onslaught of treasures like these.

While De Mello works toward valid principles like unconditional happiness, he frames them in a very negative context.

He justifies this negativity as being more truthful, more honest, and therefore not truly negative. He depicts negativity and “disillusionment” as the pathway to a spiritually superior happiness.

What I took from it as a teenager was that if I wanted “true” happiness, I should discard all the things that gave me relief, comfort, and security since these were illusory and only kept me asleep.

Instead I should seek out the negativity, suffering, and unhappiness within me, because it was through suffering I would finally be motivated to “wake up”, and these points of discomfort were the key to identifying my attachments and delusions.

Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone, you’re living in an illusion. There’s something seriously wrong with you.

You’re not seeing reality. Something inside of you has to change. But what do we generally do when we have a negative feeling? “He is to blame, she is to blame. She’s got to change”.

No! The world’s all right. The one who has to change is YOU.

What I took from passages like these is that I was to blame for my negative feelings, that there was nothing wrong with anyone else, rather there was something wrong with me.

Lately I’ve been reading and listening to the Abraham material by Esther Hicks, and while it shares similar principles of unconditional happiness and personal responsibility, the emphasis and framing is very different.

Abraham would never state that “there is something seriously wrong with you”, nor imply that we should transfer blame of others to blame of ourselves.

Yet De Mello’s whole program explicitly focused on digging into negativity:

Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of “I”; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.

Do I do anything to change myself? I’ve got a big surprise for you, lots of good news! You don’t have to do anything. The more you do, the worse it gets. All you have to do is understand.

I applied this program in my own life in response to the negative feelings in me. I became obsessed with understanding, trusting that “all you have to do is understand”.

Where did that get me?

Twenty years later I am exhausted from trying to understand. I never ran out of negative feelings, because the more I looked, the more I found. I understood them over and over again. I filled journals with them. I diligently took responsibility for them, and then tried not to identify with them.

I understood so much that I began to suspect there was something wrong with my search for understanding…and then I tried to understand that problem as well!

Contrast this with the Abraham approach. Do you need to understand? No. All you have to do is feel better. And the only reason you wanted to understand in the first place was that you thought you would feel better when you understood.

Instead of rejecting relief and happiness as “illusory”, I would have been better served to seek out as much relief and happiness as I could find.

What went wrong?

What went wrong? Should I blame De Mello for how I interpreted and internalised his words for twenty years of my life?

In fairness, he was long dead when I read his book, and the book itself was a posthumous publication based on transcripts of his retreats. As a writer myself I don’t think it’s fair to judge him for material that he may only ever have intended to deliver in person, in a controlled environment, perhaps tailoring his message to his audience.

I still think his focus on suffering and negativity is unhelpful. Abraham instead presents suffering and negativity as “contrast” which inspires and refines our desires, as opposed to De Mello’s insistence that we suffer because we are asleep in our illusions and keep bumping into objective reality.

I can also see now that De Mello’s approach is a very choleric one, and totally unsuited to a melancholic. Cholerics are much more inclined to challenge, confront, and test people, because their own sense of self-worth is typically strong and resilient.

For this same reason, spiritual writings by cholerics are often strongly focused on humility and letting go of pride. It makes sense to tell proud, self-satisfied people that they shouldn’t rest on their laurels and must take responsibility for their own feelings.

But a melancholic-phlegmatic tends to already be full of self-criticism, inadequacy, and fear of faults. Melancholics require encouragement in trusting themselves and their authentic feelings. They do not thrive under pressure nor “rise to the challenge” in response to being tested.

Was it really wrong?

In Abraham terms I’ve experienced a lot of contrast by focusing so strongly on things that felt bad. But another Abraham principle is that you can’t get it wrong, and you can’t get it done.

Even apparent mistakes like mine have to be seen in the context of my life at that point in time, and it is obvious to me that I gravitated toward De Mello’s book at that time and interpreted it in that way because it was a perfect match to how I was already feeling.

I was already depressed, anxious, and cynical. It felt a little better to find what seemed like a deeper meaning behind my suffering.

So even on that level I could have read De Mello’s book and focused only on the uplifting and inspiring parts.

My experience of De Mello’s book was a perfect match for me at that time, just as my now vastly improved thoughts and feelings have brought me to this unplanned but perfectly timed reappraisal of the book.

And in Abraham terms the suffering I’ve experienced has only added to the strength of my desire for its opposite – my desire for the real meaning, freedom, enjoyment and connectedness.

With the Abraham material I finally understand that there is no dichotomy of true and false happiness. All emotion exists on a scale from depression and despair up to appreciation, love and joy.

There is no sense in avoiding or depreciating the slightest bit of relief, and no sense in glamourising or seeking out the slightest bit of suffering.

There is no need to seek out negativity, and there is no virtue in being disillusioned.

We are meant to be happy, we are meant to enjoy life, and that includes my relief at finding that I no longer want an experience characterised by disillusionment, suffering, and the kind of desperate existential spirituality I was drawn to all those years ago.

Life is here to be enjoyed

Life is here to be enjoyed, I am here to enjoy life.

That is such a difficult thing for me to write.

I know it sounds strange, but I’ve spent more than twenty years explicitly thinking that enjoyment is a superficial distraction from the real meaning of life.

With a childhood in which enjoyment was scarce and a temperament prone to sensitivity and idealism, I accepted at face value that “enjoying life” was something that other people did, and to the detriment of finding meaning or purpose.

I looked critically at mainstream sanguine and choleric expressions of enjoyment, and let these stand for “enjoying life” and “having fun”. It didn’t occur to me that I might find my own forms of fun and enjoyment in life.

And anyway, there was a slew of mystics, sages and saints to reassure me that enjoyment and fun were vain, pointless adventures that would leave me empty and full of regrets.

Religious deprogramming

There’s a familiar trope of people who rebel against their childhood religious indoctrination, and need to search out for themselves valid and fulfilling beliefs about life, happiness, and their own identity and value.

I’m doing that now, but the terrain I’m covering is a little more varied and eclectic due to my own early search for deeper meaning and purpose.

I can’t remember all the books I read, and my mistaken beliefs are an amalgamation of many different sources, because I adhered to no single creed or set of teachings.

For example, I’ve gone back and reread parts of Awareness by Anthony de Mello, and I can see how I took that text and interpreted it in my own way, oblivious to my own idiosyncrasies or those of the author.

Yesterday I reread a little about Bede Griffiths, and reading between the lines, the guy had a difficult life and his own fair share of problems. Would the answers that he found really be appropriate for me, two generations later, in completely different circumstances of life?

Just now I’ve taken a quick look back at the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, and I can see immediately that his work is decidedly not for me. Wrong temperament, maybe even the wrong teaching, and something that clearly contributed to my sense of needing to battle against an internal enemy, whether it be called Ego or Thought.

In recent years I’ve come to respect my desire to arrive at my own conclusions and my reluctance to invest in anyone else’s point of view. But it was not always the case, and I feel it’s now time to let go of these authorities I discovered and appointed for myself.

Perhaps in a sweeping clean of my past willingness to believe, I can say that: only what speaks to me is of value to me. It doesn’t matter that a person is a saint or a sage or a seer; their inscrutable or obscure insights are their own and not mine, and it’s for me to test them and apply them, not take them on faith and try to force myself to fit.

Do I deserve to enjoy life?

At the heart of this is a question of whether I myself deserve to enjoy life, or whether I must instead change myself, become better, be transformed. Transformation is what I sought in the writings of these mystics. But no matter how hard I tried to change myself, all I found was more and more dissatisfaction with my life, my self, and the whole of reality.

When I looked for answers I hoped those answers would show me the way out, out of unhappiness and suffering, out of the mundane world, out of my mundane self.

And in part that simply reflected the confusion and unhappiness of my early life, but it also reflected a sense that I wasn’t good enough as I was, did not deserve to enjoy life or be happy.

When I think about how we create our own reality through the filter of our thoughts and expectations and feelings, I can see how fitting it was that “enjoyment” looked crass and empty to me, and the things I would have truly enjoyed seemed too distant or ethereal or unachievable.

And my memories of feeling deeply insecure and unworthy when good things did happen completes the picture.

Because there were always good things there, I just didn’t think I deserved to have them, and feeling undeserving I sought to change myself to become worthy of the freedom, love and happiness I wanted.

That is why my prayers went unanswered – I was praying to not be me. Or I prayed to be rid of unwanted conditions, all the while clinging to the thoughts and feelings that exacerbated and created those conditions.

Feeling better is unconditional

Lately I’ve discovered that I do not need conditions to change in order for me to feel better.

That includes the internal conditions I have set such stock in: solving problems, finding answers, understanding, engaging with negative emotions, making progress.

I don’t need to do any of that to feel better, because feeling better is intrinsic to our nature. It is only the conditions we set upon it that keep us from naturally feeling better.

So when I ask whether I deserve to enjoy life, I think the question must be flawed, because feeling better is unconditional and enjoying life is something that flows naturally from feeling better.

If I can naturally feel better simply by not placing any conditions on it, then what is the relevance of desert? Why do I have to deserve to feel better, in addition to simply being able to feel better?

It’s actually exciting to know that enjoying life will flow naturally from feeling better, which in turn flows naturally from not placing conditions on it.

And feeling excited about life is a very good place to be!