Why are melancholics tired all the time?

Melancholics are tired pretty much all the time.

Why is this?

Well, firstly we need to remember that melancholics are unexcitable, but with long-lasting impressions.

Being unexcitable translates directly into having “low energy” for most things in life. When something doesn’t excite you, it’s hard to be motivated or enthusiastic or any of the other mental states we associate with not being tired.

Having long-lasting impressions means we’re often preoccupied. We can’t just “go with the flow” because we have our own pre-existing velocity. These long-lasting impressions also take energy. It means instead of waking up in the morning and saying “what a wonderful new day! I wonder what today has in store?” you wake up with a sense of direct continuity from the day before….and the day before that.

You don’t get to forget, and so you don’t get to feel refreshed.

So that’s two causes of tiredness in a melancholic. By contrast, a choleric shares our long-lasting impressions, but is easily excited. That means the choleric gets a lot of energy from life.

On the other side, phlegmatics are as unexcitable as we are, but they don’t form long-lasting impressions. They get to forget. Each day can be a new day where they rediscover all the same unexciting things they rediscovered yesterday, fresh and new.

That’s why melancholics are predisposed to tiredness and fatigue. But in addition to the direct effects of temperament, the melancholic is also liable to develop character traits that contribute to tiredness and fatigue.

For example, a melancholic is more likely to respond to a hostile environment by suppressing their responses. Growing up, a melancholic is more likely to err on the side of caution, holding back and second-guessing their instincts in order to adapt to their circumstances.

The result is that the melancholic is at risk of developing a facade or fake-self, a mode of interpersonal interaction that restricts and denies their natural impulses. Melancholic caution and slowness lead to habitual self-doubt and a self-centred approach to conflict resolution. The melancholiic looks first to how he can change himself to resolve the conflicts in his world.

I think the melancholic, more so than the other temperaments, risks denying his own spontaneous impulses and excitability even further. The melancholic risks arriving at rules of behaviour that may be effective but deny his or her own self.

This self-denial might feel noble, ascetic, or superior, but because it conflicts with the melancholic’s deeper self, their already scant resources are further limited and squandered simply to maintain this complex internal dynamic, this inner tension.

In summary, we are unexcitable and find it hard to refresh and let go. On top of that, we’re liable to tie ourselves in knots trying to fit into our environment rather than changing the environment to suit ourselves. Our limited energy is depleted in fighting against ourselves.

In my experience, it’s simply not possible to become as energetic as a sanguine or a choleric, nor as placid as a phlegmatic.

But we can at least recognise our natural limits, and more importantly we can try to reduce the inner conflicts and tensions that drain our energy before we even start our day.

To this end, it helps to know that our true self is good. In most religions and philosophies, human beings are either born or created good, but something goes wrong along the way.

The point is that we don’t need to add new layers to our personality. We don’t need to tie ourselves up further. We need to get rid of layers, and untie the knots, trusting that what lies beneath it all will be whole and true.

Ultimately, these layers and knots are based on falsehoods and misunderstandings. That’s why knowing the truth will set us free.

Autoimmune and Myopia – parallels

When I had my autoimmune disease I felt great.

Let me put that in perspective.

Before the disease, I’d suffered from a kind of chronic state of anxiety and depression, coupled with a sense of disorientation and…well it’s hard to describe, but imagine knowing you have to do something vitally important, but having no idea what it is. Live with that for long enough and it doesn’t go away, it just turns into a sort of dull psychosomatic ache.

The primary cause of my autoimmune disease was mental. I reached the incredibly bitter conclusion that I’d been wrong about life, that life had no meaning and no purpose, but my desire for meaning and purpose had harmed me on the only metric that counted: money.

My obsession with meaning had stopped me choosing a normal path in life, where I could have found some kind of career and made a reasonable amount of money. Life would be meaningless either way, but at least I could have endured the meaninglessness in a nice house instead of a small unit.

Once I concluded there was no meaning to be found in life, I actually started to feel better. I felt immediate relief from the symptoms that had plagued me for years. I’d finally dismissed the idea that there was a meaningful path to follow, so I no longer felt the desperate need to discover that path.

In fact I no longer felt anything much at all. And feeling nothing was pretty good.

If it hadn’t been for the growing immobility of my SI joints and the recurrent bouts of grinding ache and pain, I would have been pretty content.

It was thanks to my autoimmune disease that I finally clawed my way back onto the path, and rediscovered meaning in life. I couldn’t ignore the pain, and I couldn’t pretend that an autoimmune disease was something imposed on me by a blind, external reality.

So I started investigating it. I knew that I had been better off feeling meaningful misery than meaningless pain. I retraced my steps from a dull world where only money and comfort mattered, to the world I once knew – the one where I had rejected a normal path in life in favour of finding answers.

In practical terms that meant I wanted to cure my autoimmune disease. It took a lot of work, a lot of fruitless investigation. But finally I realised there were two main components to the disease.

First, it had suppressed my usual unpleasant feelings of needing to strive for some unknown goal.

Second, each flare-up was triggered by a change in my mental state, a kind of decision to focus, be more intent, and drive myself unrelentingly toward a particular material outcome.

So in order to reverse the disease I had to do two things.

I’ve mentioned in the previous post that I had to reverse the decision. I had to accept that the desired material outcome might never occur. I had to consciously embrace failure. That was the only way to stop that incredibly rigid, driven state of mind. It was the only way I could genuinely relax.

And then – counterintuitively – I had to return to those unpleasant feelings. I didn’t know if they were final, or what meaning they had. But I knew from experience that they had predated the autoimmune disease, and had disappeared when the disease first emerged.

I suspected the main cause of the disease was having suppressed those feelings, replacing them with mundane material goals.

So I tried to find those feelings again. I remembered what they were like, and although they were deeply unpleasant, I knew that they were more real than the false contentment that had come with the disease.

Myopia

If the autoimmune disease parallels myopia, then the same two principles might well apply.

Firstly, there may be a negative emotional state that was suppressed with the onset of myopic symptoms.

Second, there may be a definite decision – a change in mental state that corresponds to the suppression of those negative emotions.

Unfortunately my myopia set in long ago. I don’t have strong memories of how I felt before the myopia, and I don’t even have a clear timeline of when the symptoms emerged. I didn’t know I was short-sighted until I had an eye test.

But I do have more general memories. What I will try to do next is to see how those general memories correspond to the emotional resonance of the myopia symptoms. In other words, what is the biographical significance of the emotions that arise in connection with my short-sightedness?

Likewise, what kinds of decisions might I have made as a child or young teenager that correspond to the significance of myopia symptoms? What decisions might resonate with poor vision, or might appear to justify myopia as a kind of trade-off?

If my autoimmune experience is indicative, I should expect to feel a lot worse when those old feelings resurface. But it’s better to feel them than to blindly suppress them. A more meaningful life isn’t necessarily a more pleasant or easy life, but it is definitely worth living.

Looking for answers to refine your search

So I’ve described the first step in understanding the psychological/emotional issues that correspond to a physical illness or ailment.

It’s not a quick or easy step to take, but you have to start somewhere.

Looking at the emotional aspect of the illness is like entering a whole new domain that you’ve hitherto ignored. It’s no surprise you’ll take time to refine your understanding of it.

What I’ve done in the past with my autoimmune disease is to start searching online for people having similar thoughts. I tried it again, looking at myopia in the context of fear and vulnerability or powerlessness.

Two of the results were relevant to my search:

http://www.flowsandforms.com/myopia/

http://www.visionsofjoy.org/pdfs/Myopia-As-An-Adaptation.pdf

Neither of them is exactly right for me. That’s not the point.

The point is that they offer alternative perspectives that help me further refine my own search.

They also identify things like tension in the neck and eye muscles that definitely apply to me, but would not necessarily have come to my attention.

I went through this same process of searching for relevant information and insights with my autoimmune disease, and while I had to find my own answers in the end, it did help to have similar but different materials to draw on in my search.

I agreed with other sources that said perfectionism, stress, and a driven mentality were the cause of the pain I suffered, but I still had to find the exact combination and iteration of these qualities that triggered the flare-up of my symptoms.

Once I identified them, I was able to reverse them, by consciously accepting all the negative potential outcomes that were motivating my driven state of mind in the first place.

For example, the stress corresponded at one stage to thinking I had to do nothing but write articles. I was so focused on writing articles, I could feel my mind shift into a different mode.

The strangest thing was that it felt really good. Probably because it involved blocking out and suppressing all fears and doubts.

To overcome this state of mind I had to consciously accept that I might never write another article again in my entire life and that would be ok. I had to accept that I might live in poverty and obscurity, devoid of achievement, and that would be ok.

Obviously these were painful thoughts to accept, but accepting them neutralised the intensity that had caused my joints to become inflamed as my immune system attacked them.

I don’t know if I can make an exact parallel with myopia, but I’ll continue to examine it until I understand it as best I can.

 

The eyes have it

So it’s day four without wearing glasses, and overall I’m really enjoying it.

But I still feel like I’m only just beginning to grasp how significant my visual impairment has been.

Yesterday a friend asked me how I would approach health issues from a psychological/spiritual perspective. Using eyesight as an example, I told her I would begin by examining the emotional impact and significance of the condition itself and its symptoms.

For instance, having poor eyesight makes me feel fearful and vulnerable in my interactions with the outside world, because I become aware of things – seeing them in their blurred form – long before I can recognise them, or in the case of humans, discern their intent from facial cues.

Poor eyesight also enhances my sense that there is a world “out there” which I imperfectly perceive. This leads to a near-constant sense of doubt about my perceptions and my judgements.

I feel as though other people are quicker or more astute than me, because they see things and recognise them before I do.

Overall I’m left with the sense that I am better able to deal with things in close proximity to myself. That means I have a tendency toward introversion and introspection, as well as activities like reading and writing.

Inversion

So that’s a brief summary of the apparent psychological side-effects of this illness or impairment. The trick now would be to invert cause and effect, to consider the magnitude and depth of these psychological phenomena as potential causes of the physical condition.

The heuristic approach is that our physical impairments are by and large a reflection of suppressed or ignored psychological conflicts and suffering.

Let’s say you feel afraid, but for various social and cultural reasons you can’t express that fear. Being unable to express it, the fear cannot be resolved.

Eventually a physical problem emerges that demands your attention, demands a resolution. In the case of myopia, short-sightedness emulates and reflects the suppressed emotional conflict or suffering.

We try to address the physical impairment with medical interventions including corrective lenses. But in the case of corrective lenses the intervention is merely a crutch.

The lenses don’t overcome the underlying fear, they actually help suppress it further. The glasses become a necessary object, they become imbued with protective power. You can’t get by without them, and when they break or you lose them…you feel afraid and vulnerable once more.

Healing

Looking at an illness or impairment in this light is instructive. But we also need to consider the age of onset, the severity of the condition, how long it has been endured, and so on. All of this information offers potential clues to identifying the psychological cause.

I assume this approach doesn’t hold the answer to every single illness and impairment. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that every such impairment or illness will be reversed. But at the very least, it can help us to identify and resolve the psychological and emotional conflict that lies behind it.

If I had laser eye surgery tomorrow, my vision might be perfect. But that would still leave me having to adjust to a new experience, a new way of being in the world. It would be a little like becoming a new self, and if you think the psychological landscape behind it would just quietly reform, I think you’d be disappointed.

As for me, I’ll have to examine the nature and origin of the fear and vulnerability that accompanies this impairment in my vision.

To that end, the impairment itself can always provide further clues, not only in terms of how we feel about it, but the significance of its effects. It is significant, for example, that myopia would prevent me from seeing certain things. For all that short-sightedness impairs our vision, it also protects us by creating distance from the external world.

Miracle cures and short-sightedness

I’m in my second day without wearing glasses, because I want to cure my myopia.

If that sounds bizarre, let me explain.

The miracle ‘cure’

I’ve always been both hopeful and skeptical about the prospect of ‘miraculous’ cures for physical illnesses and ailments.

I use the term ‘miraculous’ loosely to refer to cures that do not match our normal expectations for how health and illness work.

So, for example, I can quite honestly say in one sense that I ‘cured’ my autoimmune disease. My honesty makes me put ‘cured’ in quotation marks because I don’t have sufficient evidence to prove that what happened to me amounts to a ‘miraculous’ recovery from that disease.

In practical terms, I no longer have symptoms of that illness, and I have a subjectively meaningful narrative for how those symptoms came to an end as a result of my own actions.

My rheumatologists were quite happy to give me a provisional diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis based on my symptoms and a genetic marker. The only caveat is that if my symptoms stopped, then obviously they would withdraw the diagnosis.

A skeptical contention would be that if I hadn’t done anything to change my outlook on the illness and seek some kind of psychological cure to the physical problem, the symptoms would have disappeared anyway.

It’s impossible to prove in my case, and it’s hard to imagine an appropriately rigorous medical trial to test the theory (hard but not impossible).

So for me it remains a choice. I had to choose to face my illness as a reflection of a deeper psychological or spiritual issue. In so doing, I observed a pattern to the symptoms that matched changes to my mental and emotional state. When I became aware of these changes and adapted them, the symptoms ceased.

A short-sighted approach

So what about eyesight?

I’ve been short-sighted for a long time. I had my eyes tested in about year 5 at school, but I may have suffered from short-sightedness before that.

Wearing glasses has always bothered me. I don’t like being so dependent on a fragile external tool to interact with my environment. So when my glasses frame broke two days ago I decided to take the opportunity to investigate the problems with my vision.

Meditation on illness

Both auto-immune disease and short-sightedness  relate to extraordinarily complex biological systems.

An auto-immune disease is a good candidate for examination because it consists in essence of the body attacking itself without an obvious external cause.

But it turns out that myopia is also somewhat mysterious, with both hereditary and environmental factors at play.

Myopia is a form of refractive error due to the shape of the eye. I have trouble seeing long distances clearly because my eye is longer than it ought to be.

I don’t know about you, but my response to being told “your body’s immune system is attacking your joints” and “your eyeball is too long to focus the light properly”, is a profound and indomitable sense of challenge.

The spiritual approach

For want of a better word, let’s call this a ‘spiritual’ approach to illness. The idea is that our experience of life is not simply the random outcome of external processes. Rather, our experience of reality is mysterious and meaningful.

What this means is that something like suffering an auto-immune disease or having bad vision is not an accident or a random outcome. It has deeper significance. It relates to your life and your own person as if you were a character in a story.

Whether we continue to suffer from the illness, or find reprieve, I think it makes sense to try to see the personal meaning in it.

For me this process of looking for meaning begins with observing how I feel about the illness, the symptoms, and their impact on my life.

It turns out that despite not giving much thought to my short-sightedness for many years, I do carry strong feelings about it.

Going for two days without my glasses has made me realise how much fear and powerlessness I feel when I can’t clearly see what is going on around me.

Driving without my glasses is safe enough – I can see every object in my vicinity – but more than a hundred or so metres away and objects become blurred. People are easy to see but impossible to recognise. They become fuzzy humanoid shapes, obvious but unreadable.

The inability to see what’s coming right to the farthest horizon or the very end of the road is fear-inducing. I can see things but I don’t know what they are.

Then there’s the powerlessness. I can’t look down the aisle of a supermarket and read the signs for the food categories anymore. I have to walk towards things to make out exactly what they are. And as for people – they might as well be dressed in shrouds and wearing masks until they come within about five metres of me.

It’s a profoundly alienating experience.

So there you go. This short-sightedness does have a great deal of meaning for me, a meaning I’ve ignored and neglected by wearing glasses all the time.

I don’t want to wear glasses anymore, and that means I have to start confronting and facing these fears and insecurities.

So what am I saying?

Does that mean if I confront my fears and anxieties my eyes will magically change and I’ll be able to see without glasses?

Well, what I discovered when I tried to heal my auto-immune disease was that I had to accept the truth about the disease first. The truth was that my disease was just a reflection of my own psychological and spiritual state.

I know how challenging that sounds, because I resisted accepting it for a long time. I didn’t like the idea that progress would depend on choosing to believe something. If the evidence could convince me, I was ready to believe it. But to just believe, without evidence? That sounded pathetic and weak.

Yet there was evidence. Not evidence that could convince me this was the truth, but evidence that I could make no progress, do nothing more, until I had accepted this basic premise.

To put it bluntly, if my disease really was just some random or genetically determined biological quirk, then I was ******.

If my symptoms weren’t a reflection of my deeper psychological and spiritual state, then there was nothing I could do about it. But if they were a reflection, then nothing was set in stone.

In the end that was the choice: the choice to try to give up or try to find answers.

And if there’s one thing I know from my studies and reading in philosophy and mysticism, it’s that our claims to absolute knowledge of external reality are as much a choice as any.

We choose to believe the world is real, not because we have seen convincing evidence that it is real, but because we have seen evidence that to choose otherwise gives us nothing in return.

If I choose to believe the world is a figment of my imagination, there is nothing anyone can say or do to prove me wrong. But there is plenty that can be said and done to prove that a real world is a much better thing to believe in than a deluded imaginary one.

Your beliefs do shape your experience

Every experience tells a story. Every experience has something to teach you.

I’ve been turning these ideas over in my mind lately, and in the past day or two it’s become even more important to me.

An example I like to use is when my wife and a good friend were having a conversation and I suddenly felt left out and ignored. I waited, but they continued to ignore me, both in the conversation and in terms of their body language.

I ended up feeling put out by this, and later I brought it up with my wife and my friend separately.

My friend said “if you felt left out, why didn’t you join in?”

and my wife said “actually I was waiting for you to join in the conversation but you didn’t for some reason.”

So why hadn’t I just joined in?

The truth (though I had to search for it) was that I was too afraid to jump into the conversation in case they didn’t want me to be a part of it. I had read distance in their body language, and that made me anticipate a risk of failure if I came close and tried to take part.

But the irony is that I was already standing back from them from the moment the three of us met. My own body language was retreating from the engagement, leaving a vacuum that they filled with their own conversation.

The weren’t distancing themselves from me, they were responding to my own distance, which I had failed to acknowledge in myself.

How many times do we create the circumstances we fear?

Time and time again I’ve noticed in hindsight that I had produced, or imagined, the challenges and obstacles that shape my life for the worst. I have unwittingly created the very incidents and experiences that reinforce my pessimism, my hostility, my self-pity, and most of the time I haven’t even stopped to question the beliefs and assumptions behind those experiences.

In all aspects of life, my experiences are a reflection of my own beliefs about reality and about the way the world works.

My sense of what is possible and what is impossible. My sense of what is proper and improper. My attempts to ‘read’ other people’s attitudes to me….The truth is that we don’t know what is possible and impossible, and from that point every other assumption is thrown into doubt as well.

Every experience I have is reflecting something about my beliefs and my expectations within that context.

For instance, right now I’m brewing a beer. Brewing takes about four hours, and though it’s very much a worthwhile process, for me the experience feels like work. It’s a chore, and I fully expect to be tired and worn out by the end of it.

But why?

If I examine it more closely, there’s no reason I can’t relax and take it easy while still brewing. It’s not physically or mentally demanding, so long as you’re organised.

If you set a timer, you can forget about it until the timer reminds you. You don’t have to keep watching the clock.

You can worry about whether you’re doing the process correctly, but if you’ve already researched it then further worry is just a choice.

What is this experience telling me? It’s telling me that I view work as something burdensome and incompatible with a happy and relaxed frame of mind. Work is not enjoyable. Work is hard, monotonous, dull, and stressful.

There are aspects of brewing beer that are intrinsic to the process, but countless components of my personal brewing experience are entirely dependent on my choices, which are in turn dependent on my beliefs about life and reality.

Every instance, every experience is like this. I can’t fault or blame the experience or reality for being the way that it is. Or if I do, I am once again creating a situation that reflects my beliefs and expectations. If I want to feel helpless, then I need only believe that I am.

If I want to feel that life is difficult and challenging and ultimately disappointing, if I want to believe that all good things must fail, then I need only act accordingly.

You’d be amazed at how efficiently and unfailingly an individual can sabotage their own life so as to feel the disappointment and suffering they expect to find.

But what’s the alternative?

Well, I firmly believe (and so increasingly experience) that if we become aware of our own stake in these conflicts, our own role in creating them, we will gradually cease to create them this way.

When something good in your life looks like it’s coming to an end, must it really be so? Isn’t it reflecting back to you your own deepest expectations and beliefs about life?

I guarantee that if you look at it this way, if you ask yourself why you haven’t done things differently, why you accept the limitations, or why you feel powerless to change, you will arrive not at absolute obstacles but at your own self-imposed limits. You’ll discover that you’ve ruled out any alternative answers already, and so you’re not willing to try anything different.

Ignorance blinds us.

I didn’t know that I had distanced myself from my wife and my friend long before I felt excluded. Once I knew that I had done that, I could choose not to do it.

Maybe your mind works differently, but for me this is always the case.

I didn’t realise I had already decided that brewing must be onerous and time-consuming and must monopolise my attention for four hours. It doesn’t have to. There are steps where I have to pay attention, but there are also periods where I can ignore it. Likewise, if the time commitment really bothers me, I could buy equipment that would make heating and cooling much faster, or automate parts of the process. But that would touch on a whole slew of complicated beliefs about money!

The moral of the story is that our experiences are shaped far more than we realise by our own beliefs and expectations. Accordingly, our experiences can teach us a great deal about those beliefs and expectations.

We worry about external things, but our understanding of those external things – even our experience of them – is profoundly mediated by our beliefs and expectations.

We think we know how people will act and react to us. And so long as we act and react in the same old ways, we’re probably right. But the moment we change, everything changes.

The zone of silence: rediscovering non-fiction

I’ve been working on a short book about dieting, weight loss, and the ideal relationship with food.

But it’s been a while since I did any real intellectual work – long enough for me to forget all the lessons I learned years ago working in bioethics, where I had the privilege to dive headlong into all-consuming questions day after day.

That’s why it took 18 attempts before I remembered how to write non-fiction again.

The French Dominican philosopher Sertillanges wrote:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

That zone of silence is essential. To create it means rejecting every other thought, idea, desire, or preoccupation.

You cannot think “I want to write a book”. You cannot have your audience in mind. You cannot harbour any thoughts of how people may react, or how well your prose matches the conventions.

Create that zone of silence, and into that space a pure, authentic, unadulterated idea will come forth.

Proposition by proposition the text will grow, until there is enough substance to continue.

Without this detachment, this freedom from desire and self-will, the work cannot be fresh or original. It will shrink and curl, and take the shape of cliched and familiar expressions.

I’ve written a lot about fiction recently, but I’m thrilled to rediscover these deeper levels of non-fiction I had neglected for so long. I’ll keep you posted on this new book, but in the meantime I’d be remiss not to mention my recent fantasy novel.

To Create a World is a unique tale of magic and meaning, our longing for adventure and our deepest fears and desires. Click on the image below to find out more.

Temperament Tests

I just came across this temperament test created by a historian of ideas from Paris.

Her book is a history of the humours in Western medicine and culture, and that includes the temperaments.

Have a go at the test. Every test has its limitations, and I did this one a couple of times because I had conflicting responses to some questions.

Regardless, I ended up predominantly melancholic each time, as expected:

http://www.passionsandtempers.com/v1/page.php?l=en&p=test

As a bonus, she offers some historical medical advice for balancing out your humours! Mine included taking a one hour walk every day, to which I had an immediate visceral reaction of opposition and incredulity. So it’s probably good advice.

 

This next test was sent to me by a friend some time ago. As with all tests, I found the questions a little hard to answer. For example, when it asks whether I prefer novelty or routine, my first thought is that of course I prefer novelty. But that just means I like the idea of novelty. If I look objectively at my life, I obviously don’t like novelty…I am a terrifyingly routine person.

http://personality-testing.info/tests/O4TS/

This test was created using self-descriptions from people who already knew their temperament – which explains why I laughed so hard at some of the criteria, such as “I radiate joy”.

Yep, that’s me alright.

The actual explanations of the temperament aren’t amazing, but it’s still one of the best tests I’ve seen.

 

Melancholic learning styles

I’ve had a few people turn up here searching for problems that a melancholic might experience in learning.

I tried writing a reply, but the attempt to be thorough killed my motivation.

So there’s the first clue: motivation for a melancholic is vital.

I learn best when I have a single burning question to answer, an intuition to explore, or an idea to develop.

So I really get Confucius:

The Master said, “Ts’ze, you think, I suppose, that I am one who learns many things and keeps them in memory?”

Tsze-kung replied, “Yes,-but perhaps it is not so?”

“No,” was the answer; “I seek a unity all pervading.”

An alternative translation refers to a single thread that binds all of his knowledge together. That’s what melancholics need, I think, at least when we’re trying to learn.

A single thread

A few weeks ago after martial arts practice, I asked a friend about his learning process.

His explanation of how he learns was completely foreign to me.

He said that the martial art we learn is made up of lots of different components that need to be developed in parallel. When he focuses on any given component he can tell that out of ten repetitions, some will be better than others. That gives him a clear sense of how he needs to improve. He simply knows what direction to head in.

By contrast, I find it confusing to think of lots of different components that each needs strengthening. I prefer to think of these components coming together to form a coherent whole. And this means having a highly-developed theory of how the martial art works. I seek a unity, all pervading.

Likewise, the idea of simply recognising when one repetition is better than another is outside my experience. I don’t know what direction to head in unless I have a theoretical framework to guide the way.

Why do I need strong theoretical support for a physical activity?

Well, remember that the melancholic is characterised by being unexcitable, with enduring impressions. It’s hard to learn anything when you aren’t excited, and that’s why melancholics need a strong motivation in the form of a question, an idea, or a problem to solve.

Without these things, the pointlessness and tedium of study and practice becomes unbearable. It is so much harder to retain 100 pointless facts, than to solve an interesting problem, even though you might learn the same 100 facts along the way.

With physical activity the approach to learning is similar. Instead of pointless facts, we have an array of sensory data that makes no sense without a theoretical context (like a question or a problem) to help us shape and frame it.

Without a theoretical framework, all the information from my body streams in like a torrent, and I can’t tell what is relevant and what isn’t.

There are days at training where my whole theory has burst like a bubble against some countervailing revelation from my teacher. I try going through the motions, but it feels as though I have no idea what I’m doing.

After a while I remember the parts of the theory that haven’t been shattered. I slowly piece it back together and try to reconcile it with the new data. Eventually I’m back on track.

From an outsider’s point of view it would look like I’ve suddenly forgotten years of training in an instant.

So that’s one aspect of the melancholic learning style. It sounds pretty bad.

The positive side of it is that once you’ve mastered your theoretical grasp of the subject, you know it inside-out. You can take it places no one else may have even thought to take it. And you can quickly see the connections and the contrasts with other theories, systems, and ideas.

In other words, whatever you have learned becomes a part of the greater all-pervading unity.

Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.