A Spiritual Reality

Ours is a spiritual reality.

We are spiritual beings, and though we inhabit bodies our bodies do not describe our limits.

Spirit is obvious, yet so obvious it can be denied if we fixate only on the material aspect of our experience.

Like watching a movie and forgetting there’s a whole film crew just out of view. We suspend disbelief and convince ourselves that the objects of our senses are all that matter.

When he tries to extend his power over objects, those objects gain control of him. He who is controlled by objects loses possession of his inner self.

Zhuangzi

A spiritual reality doesn’t follow the laws we have ascribed to life, the conventions and limitations of “the world”.

Spiritual reality inverts the relationship between inner world and outer: our innermost being is one with the creative power behind all things.

We might spend our days struggling to arrange things to our liking, but the deeper part of us is united with the singular being that created all those things, holds them in existence, and governs them.

There are effectively two “selves” within us: the self who experiences reality as a limited, physical being, and the self who is one with the creator.

Our goal is to reconcile or align the two; bring peace, love, and joy to the smaller “self” who has suffered so long under the illusion of separateness, powerlessness, and mortality in an uncaring world.

Our innermost being feels only love and joy, suffers no fear or anxiety, sees eternity and knows the pure, endless sufficiency of the creative power.

Our spiritual work is to relinquish the falsehoods accrued by our outer self and seek refuge in the abundance of our inner being.

Don’t go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens.

– Kabir

And then what?

This is where I used to get stuck.

Withdraw from the outer self and enjoy the vision of your innermost being…but then what?

Even though I knew the theory, in practice I couldn’t help but return to the limited, constrained, and conventional view of reality.

I clung to a polarised view of spiritual vs physical, contemplation vs action.

I devalued the physical world in order to focus more on the spiritual, and yet that polarisation proved unstable.

And illogical: if the spiritual is all, how can the physical undermine or confound it? If the outer self is so much less than the inner self, why does it dominate?

I might enjoy a wonderful vision of spiritual reality, but then it was time to return to the real world.

And the whole time I thought I was being impractical, but it turned out I wasn’t being radical enough.

When Peter walked on the water, it was his fears that sank him.

In my case, the very question of “what now?” shows I still had fears, and a kind of faith in the physical world, even though I professed to believe in a spiritual one.

Does happiness come from outside, or from within?

Is this a spiritual world or a material one?

Did God create everything, or did everything create God?

In the end I discovered that my negative expectations about “physical reality” had spiritual ramifications.

I persevered under the mistaken premise that physical reality represented a “problem” for which spiritual insight was the solution.

I kept searching for answers, by unwittingly reiterating the question, over and over again.

And so the true answer is to stop asking the wrong question. Ours is a spiritual reality – it just is.

Not in contrast to how everyone thinks the world works; why should I care (and how would I know?) what everyone thinks?

The point, a spiritual point, is what I think: and embracing a spiritual reality means no longer affirming a physical reality as the problem I have to solve, or the prison I need to escape.

Spiritual reality is not an instead of, or in contrast to. It just is, and is all that is.

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Fixing a melancholic

Harry Potter is an excellent allegory for how a melancholic engages with the world.

The contrast between “normal” life and the melancholic search for meaning is wonderfully depicted in the revelation that a secret world of witches, wizards, and magic exists alongside, but carefully hidden from the muggles.

The quick derogatory explanation that Harry’s aunt, uncle and cousin are muggles – that the whole of Harry’s small world up to that point is a muggle world – immediately validates Harry’s deep dissatisfaction with life.

Breaking a melancholic

Melancholics correspond to the MBTI types ENFP, INFP, INFJ, and ENFJ. The combination of intuition and feeling typifies the melancholic temperament.

For NFJs, feeling is externally oriented, seeking harmony with others. For NFPs, feeling is internally oriented – arguably the most mysterious and introverted of the cognitive functions.

INFPs have introverted Feeling (Fi) as our dominant function. It’s hard to describe, but imagine your feeling state dominating your conscious experience prior to, and seemingly independent of, any other aspect of experience.

Imagine watching a movie with an intense soundtrack that dominates and overwhelms everything else, including dialogue and visuals.

This soundtrack is inescapable.

The health of an INFP might be viewed as a function of the coherence between the soundtrack and the rest of the movie. If the two don’t match, there is dissonance that reverberates through the score, and the INFP is then caught in a feedback loop where the only option is to shut down, retreat, sleep it off.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to live “normally”, while the soundtrack plays heavy, leaden themes that wear me down. The thought of living a “normal” life….the thought that a normal life is all that there is, all that is possible, is deeply destructive.

The soundtrack of introverted feeling informs me constantly that this is not what I want. But through my formative experiences and my subsequent worldview I’ve persisted in this unwanted direction.

Suppressing the dominant function

A dominant function can’t be truly suppressed in the sense of eradicating it. But if a soundtrack continues long enough in monotonous tones of protest, you can learn to ignore it for the most part.

The functional stack of an INFP is introverted Feeling (Fi) , extroverted Intuition (Ne), introverted Sensing (Si), and extroverted Thinking (Te).

Learning to ignore my Fi, I turned to the lesser functions and tried to live through Ne, Si, and Te.

This matches the common experience of neglecting one’s dominant function in favour of the inferior function, a stage of life that IIRC corresponds to the 20s-30s.

My inferior function of extroverted Thinking is all about efficiency and goals. Te-dominant people revel in achievements and outcomes; but Te in the inferior position is a far more modest and limited version.

Ignoring my Fi, I tried to view life through the lens of Te. This translated into a very uneasy, irritable and stressful form of goal-directed motivation, and an intense, acute, but wearying analytical mindset.

I describe this as a “problem-solving” attitude to life. At one stage I even looked to problem-solving as a possible strength or “vocation” in life. But problem-solving didn’t leave me with any lasting solutions. I could critique and analyse and deconstruct, but it wasn’t fulfilling, and it wasn’t creative.

Rehabilitating introverted Feeling

What I’ve been working towards (now that there’s nowhere else to go) is the rehabilitation of Fi.

Positive-thinking has been instrumental and life-changing in this respect; it might be more accurate to call it “positive-feeling” since how I feel is the first indicator and measure of the thoughts I am thinking.

But the goal-oriented mindset has been deeply ingrained in me. I even approached “feeling better” from a goal-oriented, problem-solving perspective.

Yesterday I realised that like everything else, engaging in a problem-solving attitude doesn’t bring me lasting solutions, it just attunes me to further problems. If I really loved solving problems, the good news is that there is no end to the available problems to solve.

But since a problem-solving attitude is wearying and detrimental and ultimately unsatisfying, it’s time for me to find something else.

Enjoying life

You can try to enjoy life as the solution to a problem, or to achieve the goal of “feeling better”. But to really change, I have to stop trying to solve problems or achieve goals and instead start enjoying life for the sake of enjoyment.

The difference is profound. Seeking to enjoy life tunes me in to all the things I can enjoy. It lets me forget about “keeping score” with whatever problems I’ve been trying to solve or goals I’ve been trying to achieve.

I feel physically different, because ignoring Fi introduced unnecessary tension into my mind and body, and employing Te was an additional effort.

I can honestly say that in the past 20 or so years I haven’t “let go” of that problem-solving attitude except for occasional instances of revelry or relaxation.

20+ years of internal conflict, unnecessary effort, and unremitting tension come to an end when I choose to enjoy rather than solve, and appreciate rather than answer.

I feel rejuvenated, because I’m judging by different criteria now. The considerations and concerns of extroverted thinking don’t matter at all to introverted feeling. At most, they’re my fourth priority instead of my first.

Seriously, anxiety?

Yesterday we had a birthday party for my five year-old boy.

Our baby girl is less than a month old, which made things a little more complicated.

But in all honesty it’s not the complications or the lack of sleep that makes throwing a birthday party difficult: it’s the anxiety.

I was anxious in the lead-up to the party, and of course I tried a number of things to reduce it.

Some of those moves involved “positive thinking”, and the most successful was to view the anxiety itself in a positive light…

You know the great thing about chronic anxiety? It’s really reliable!

You don’t have to worry about it, the anxiety will just be there in the background, doing its own thing.

When I’m busy planning a party, with a list of things to organise, it’s great knowing that anxiety can take care of itself.

It’s automatic. Like “Set and forget”, but it’s self-setting too!

Isn’t it comforting to know that you forget about your anxiety while you focus on everything else that needs doing, and it’ll still be there, plugging away in the background, ready for you whenever you need it?

Hurdles are relative

So that worked. What a surprise!

The party went really well.

And then the next day, I found my anxiety had reappeared, this time over the daunting prospect of…

…buying my son a sandwich on the way to school.

Well, I had to buy a sandwich, a banana, and pick up his drink bottle from his grandparents’ on the way.

That meant leaving home a little earlier.

Yet I was almost as anxious about this task as I was about organising the birthday party.

Or perhaps an alternative view: I was as uncomfortable with this morning’s anxiety as I was with the pre-party anxiety.

Anxiety tips its hand

Occasional situations like these are where anxiety reveals itself as a fraud.

Because it makes no sense that my anxiety should trouble me as much over this minor issue as it did over the relatively major one.

I mean, the party itself was not that big a deal either, but it obviously ranks far higher than running a couple of errands on the way to school.

What this suggests to me (and I’ve seen it a couple of times before) is that anxiety is a major con.

It’s a joke. It’s BS. It’s deeply suspicious.

It’s like a security system that can’t tell the difference between a home invasion and a stray cat crossing the front lawn, but still purports to protect you from danger.

What are you focusing on?

The underlying mechanism is still mysterious.

I think my focus in life is profoundly negative; such that instead of feeling better when stressors are overcome, I just feel temporarily less bad.

The way my anxiety behaves also implies that on some level I’m looking for things to feel anxious about, as if I’m getting some kind of reward from feeling anxious.

It’s even possible that anxiety itself is the reward. As weird as that sounds, it is a kind of excitement physiologically and mentally.

People like scary movies and scary rides; we enjoy thrilling games and stories; it’s plausible that anxiety itself is enjoyable.

It could also be familiar, or it could be a kind of “lesser evil” that promises to help ward off even worse experiences.

  • Being anxious about the party could be seen as a way of avoiding embarrassing oversights or poor planning.
  • Being anxious about running errands before school could be a way of avoiding being late.

It’s likely a combination of factors though, because in the many years of living with anxiety, no single answer has resolved it for long.

A positive alternative

I think what I’m missing is a positive alternative to anxiety – something to focus on and achieve that is more substantial than the mere absence of feeling anxious.

Taking a cue from “positive thinking”, one thing I did for the party was to give myself positive cues like “I wonder how much I’ll enjoy it?” “I wonder how many nice, funny, or enjoyable things will happen?” and “I wonder how much my son and his friends will enjoy the food and the games?”

I suspect there’s a global or baseline equivalent of those positive thoughts that applies to my overall focus in life.

In other words, just as I can shift my focus to positive cues on any given subject, I can probably shift my overall focus toward feeling good as a positive alternative to feeling anxious.

What might that look (and feel) like?

Is it okay to be happy?

In a couple of decades living with anxiety and depression I frequently wondered about the correlation between my mood and my view of the world.

I’ve always valued the search for truth, and part of that search was to understand anxiety and depression themselves. But what if this “search” is itself a symptom of anxiety and depression?

What if looking for answers is just putting a positive spin on endless rumination?

Depressive realism

Sometimes it seems like happy people live in a bubble, unwilling or unable to grapple with the grand humane and existential challenges of life.

The popular notion of “depressive realism” offers a kind of perverse satisfaction in being miserable: the idea that depressed people see the world more clearly, or that happy people are buffered from harsh realities by self-serving delusions of competence and optimism.

If you find it difficult to be happy, you can console yourself with the idea that happiness is just for dumb, superficial, or morally unserious people.

But is this kind of depressive realism any better than a sour grapes attitude toward happiness?

Ironically, this consolation is itself the fostering of a self-serving delusion aimed at making us feel better, as we pride ourselves on being both willing and able to face the harsh realities of life.

When life hands you lemons, sure, you could make lemonade…but a real man will just eat that lemon and grit his teeth against the sourness, because lemons are supposed to be sour!

Intentional optimism

In the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I think about life, in order to improve my mood.

In the process it’s become clear to me that despite all the suffering implicit in decades of anxiety and depression, despite being desperately unhappy, I couldn’t honestly say that I wanted things to be different.

We all want to be happy, but our desire for happiness is typically framed and delineated by very strict conditions.

We want to be happy in certain ways, under specific criteria; we want happiness on our own terms, even if those terms are largely unconscious in daily life.

When I first considered changing my thoughts in order to improve my mood, I immediately worried about becoming “delusional”, like one of those dumb, superficial, happy people who lives in blissful ignorance of life’s deeper meaning and struggles

It was very important to me that I maintain a sense of my own realism, honesty, and clarity about the nature of life; so important that I was more comfortable being deeply unhappy than risking a change to my self-image.

I put limitations on my pursuit of happiness, limitations that turned out to be based on little more than crude stereotypes.

Crude stereotypes of happiness

If I was truly honest with myself, wouldn’t I have to acknowledge that those supposed “dumb, superficial, blissfully ignorant people” were just a fantasy?

In all those years of looking for answers, I hadn’t once gone out of my way to examine people who were actually happy, preferring to think that I understood what superficial, derogatory happiness looked like.

In fact, my own experience belies the notion that happy people are ignorant or deluded. I don’t know anyone who matches the caricature that exists in my own mind.

People who are genuinely happier than me tend not to go around thinking and talking about their depressing problems, but to cast that as a moral failing is misguided.

I’ve met others similar to me: deeply depressed, yet repulsed by the thought of having to “delude” themselves in order to feel better.

Such people would never have the audacity to claim that they are free from “delusion”. They might say that they try not to delude themselves, but it’s more a statement of values and ideals than an objective assessment of their overall knowledge and beliefs.

It’s as if we’ve tried and failed at just “getting along” in life, and instead of admitting the failure, tried to redefine the parameters of life itself until those who get along well are the ones who’ve failed the test of moral seriousness.

Temperament defines happiness

The problem is that we aren’t all the same in what excites us and makes us happy, and therefore we can’t and shouldn’t try to “get along” in the same ways.

Those of us who struggle most with anxiety and depression seem to have an (un)healthy dose of what ancient proto-psychologists called melancholic temperament.

Melancholics are excited by meaning and ideals, and not much else. Yet we inhabit a society full of people who find happiness and fulfilment more easily accessible – in the pursuit of power and prestige, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or in simply being left alone to do their own thing.

Meaning and ideals are hard to reconcile with a world ordered to more tangible and readily accessible pursuits. That alone is enough to explain a depressed and anxious outlook.

But if we can at least recognise that meaning and ideals are what motivate and fulfil us, and that we are not all motivated by the same things, then we can dispense with attempts to universalise happiness and justify our own preoccupations.

In other words, it is not superficiality that makes others happy; they are happier (in general) because they have greater ease in identifying and accomplishing the things that make them happy.

Likewise, we are not less happy because of our bold embrace of harsh truths and discomforting realities; we are less happy (in general) because we have not succeeded in identifying and accomplishing the things that make us happy, and have in fact gone to the other extreme of denying our need for meaning and ideals.

Putting meaning and ideals first

I think the most important thing is to recognise what it is that makes us happy as individuals – whether that be meaning and ideals or something else – and seek to enlarge that aspect of our life.

For melancholics the initial challenge is working out that it is meaning and ideals that excites us, and the subsequent challenge is learning how to approach meaningful things for the sake of the meaning they provide.

I used to study philosophy, but I couldn’t really articulate that it was the search for meaning that drove me to it. So I tended to go along with other people’s perspectives of what philosophy is and why it is meaningful or important.

There came a time when I ceased to find philosophy meaningful. And it turned out that I didn’t really care all that much about the other aspects of philosophy that people find valuable. I didn’t really care very much about critical thinking or rationality or asking big questions or seeking answers generally.

Ironically this makes a melancholic surprisingly pragmatic in a way that can even resemble a choleric. A melancholic is like a choleric whose ambition is finding meaning, and everything else is subordinate to that goal.

I think that’s what drives my interest in mysticism, philosophy, and religious practice and thought. I’m looking for a pure meaning that can encompass and imbue all of life.

True self vs Ego

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melancholics and inhibited body language/facial expressions

Aquinas took from Aristotle a cool view of the emotions…

Basically the underlying emotion (or ‘passion’ because they can be viewed as external objects causing us to have a ‘passive’ response or undergo change…like the ‘patient’ who suffers…)

The underlying emotion is love which is our natural response to things that appear good (or are good).

Which is pretty cool, because it means love is the root of all our responses to our experience.

So it goes something like:

I perceive something good in the distance -> desire  (distance can be time or space.)

I perceive something evil/bad in the distance -> fear

I attain the good thing -> joy

The bad thing arrives -> sorrow

— I think about getting rid of the bad thing -> anger

How I feel about good things finally -> I love them

How I feel about bad things finally – > I hate them

I think good things are attainable/ bad things can be overcome -> hope

I think good things are unattainable/bad things can’t be overcome -> despair

Pretty cool, huh?

All of these passions/emotions have an effect on our minds and our bodies, because we are psychosomatic beings.

The old system was  a bit vitalist, so they would talk about heat and life in your body.

Eg. when you feel love the heat expands in your body. Love is expansive, and makes you actually feel warm. Fear makes your heat retract inward, which is why you may feel cold when afraid. In anger the heat rises up into the head. Sorrow is the worst because your heat shrinks right back inside and you feel lifeless and awful.

These passions have corresponding facial expressions. They effect your posture, your gait, your movements, and your face. That’s how people can learn to read “body language”.

So let’s say you feel happy. You’re experiencing joy, and your face shows it. You’re beaming joy naturally without any effort.

But then someone shouts at you “what the hell are you grinning at, you look like an idiot!”.

Being yelled at is scary, being told you look like an idiot is bad. These produce feelings of sorrow and fear, which change your expression immediately. But you might also be confused, not sure why they are saying these things, not sure why your joyful feeling would cause a bad reaction in them.

You might also feel anger, and your expression changes again.

That’s still fairly natural. Your face is responding automatically to the emotion you are feeling.

But what if someone yells at you enough times that you realise your automatic expressions are going to get you into trouble again and again? Then maybe you decide that you should hide your joy, or your anger, or fear, or whatever it is you think will get you into trouble. You become afraid to express your feelings naturally in your expression.

But the only way to stop your face from automatically expressing is to give it a different task to do. So you practice holding a facial expression, or you stay really mindful of what emotion you might be feeling, ready to dampen it down with “serious face” or “polite face” or “happy face”.

The problem is that these faces are not natural. they aren’t expressing your authentic emotion. Instead they are expressing a complicated internal conflict, based on a fear of how people will react to you.

Holding that kind of tension in your face, and monitoring your expression, is very taxing and stressful. It sucks. It’s inauthentic.

I think Melancholics are especially prone to this because we do have strong emotions that are often out of sync with the people around us.

People might think you’re sitting grinning at nothing, when you’re reliving a past experience in your mind. Get told off enough times…get told it’s disrespectful or that you look like there’s something wrong with you, and yes you probably will internalise that message and learn to inhibit your natural expressions.

The way out of it is not easy, because you need to actively resist the impulse to control your expression. It takes more effort to overcome this effort-laden habit, but the effort has to be careful and light.

You might need to relearn intentionally how to let your face express your feelings automatically without fear of other people’s negative reactions.

One place to start is noticing that there is actual muscle tension in your face at this very moment. The weird, constant feelings of tension or tightness aren’t imaginary, they’re caused by tight muscles reacting to your fear of having the “wrong” expression.

If you can be aware of that tension as something the muscles of your face and head are actively doing, then that may help you ease off the tension a little.

It’s not just facial muscles, but also the muscles that control the eyes and the eyelids. Looking at the individual muscles of the head and face might help you understand the strain you’re creating in trying to keep your face unresponsive to your natural internal impulses.

Melancholics and trauma

A reader asked how melancholics express love and affection, physically and emotionally, etc.

I feel like l need to understand why he takes forever to be close to me, doesn’t seem to like physical touch (which l think is related to past trauma) despite me providing a safe zone.

I don’t know the person in question, so this is more of an educated guess based on my own experiences and my interactions with other melancholics.

Trauma

First I would say that it most likely is related to past trauma, or the internal adaptations he’s made to the past trauma.

In a melancholic, trauma could produce adaptations like detachment/dissociation, hypervigilance, agitation, and so on.

Physical touch could be difficult because he’s basically in fight-or-flight mode, feeling in danger and ready to run or lash out at the slightest hint of a threat. His nervous system could be amped up, and every sound or sensation is magnified and feels like a violent imposition that is putting him in danger.

That’s one option anyway.

Alternatively, he could be detaching/dissociating from unpleasant emotions, trying not to feel them. If this is the case, then physical touch would be unwelcome because he’s already doing his best not to feel anything. Physical contact from a loved-one would normally have a relaxing, grounding effect, but in his case it would also bring him closer to his unwanted painful emotions.

Temperament

Dissociation and hypervigilance are pretty common responses regardless of temperament, though I suspect melancholics are more prone to internalise and hold on to past trauma than the other temperaments.

But in addition to mechanisms like dissociation and hypervigilance, melancholics will also respond to trauma in uniquely melancholic ways.

Because melancholics are idealists, they will be drawn to idealising their response. That means they will look for ultimate, perfect, and meaningful responses to their suffering.

You can tell a sanguine or phlegmatic to “learn to let go” but a melancholic will baulk at “letting go” because it implies that the problem is not as significant as it feels to them.

Letting go sounds like “forgetting” and since when has a problem ever gone away just by forgetting about it?

So a melancholic will be drawn to radical, idealised solutions to their internal suffering. Solutions like…rejecting all intimate or dependent human relationships, wishing they could live alone like a hermit on a mountaintop, somehow gaining complete control over their emotions, or simply ceasing to rely on or experience emotions in the first place.

These are the kinds of ‘solutions’ that will really just mess you up a whole lot more, but they appeal to the melancholic because they are inspiring. They hold meaning and promise a lasting solution to the problem of suffering.

What I’m getting at here is that a melancholic might have developed ideals and (unrealistic) goals that further inhibit them from accepting or expressing affection.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is like being lost in a fog where only the biggest and brightest landmarks can be (dimly) seen. So imagine you’ve grown up in the fog, unable to respond adequately to your own suffering by altering your environment, and this predicament has left a deep and long-lasting impression on you that you never ever forget…

If you can’t change your environment (due to lack of knowledge, power, or both) then all you can do is change yourself.

Maybe the best you can do is try to stop those painful or unpleasant emotions from having control over you.

Melancholics may then choose to identify with examples of human beings who are emotionally detached and invulnerable, in the belief that this is an attainable and desirable way to live.

If this is the case with your melancholic, then he might not know how to reconcile this idealised role or imagined invulnerability with the more simple and healthy enjoyment of expressing and receiving affection.

Summary

All of this is potentially complicated.

In the first instance I would consider either the detached/dissociated or hypervigilant/fight-or-flight responses as possible explanations for avoiding accepting/expressing affection.

Both of those can run quite deep, and people do not necessarily recognise that they are in these states.

The secondary thing is the idealised role that could mean he has past or current ideals that make it hard for him to accept emotional vulnerability and intimacy. He might not even realise that these ideals are incomplete or unrealistic or not good models for a healthy human existence.

If this sounds daunting, just bear in mind that all people of different temperaments have issues and problems and faults. Melancholics are just more likely to internalise it rather than blaming it all on other people or taking it out on others.

Obviously none of this is a substitute for professional counselling etc.

So bearing in mind my non-professional status, there are a couple of ‘themes’ that might help. If possible, you could talk to him about how simple physical affection makes you feel relaxed and happy, and ask him how he feels about it.

Melancholics seem to love talking/thinking about themselves, and a spirit of genuine inquiry (as opposed to a challenge or interrogation) is usually welcome.

After all, if you start breaking love down into more basic actions and feelings, isn’t it that we feel relaxed and happy when we’re with someone we love? And physical contact tells us that the person we care about finds us lovable and attractive. Verbal affection and “reaching out” tells us that we’re important to the person we care about, and vice versa.

If you can find a way to talk about it, and discuss how he feels, I think that might prove fruitful. If he’s melancholic, he may not have a very clear sense of how he feels or why he feels that way. If there are repeated patterns like it taking him a long time to get close, then he might be able to make observations and work out what’s going on.

If you mean that each time he sees you, it takes him a while to physically get close to you, then bear in mind that it might simply be taking time for his physiological and mental state to change. That is, if his “normal” phys. and mental state is fight-or-flight, then yes it will take quite a while to cool down in your presence, to a level where he is calm enough to accept and express affection.

By becoming aware of patterns like these (if that’s what is actually going on) we can learn to adjust.

Anyhow, I hope some of this is relevant and helpful. Since I don’t know the circumstances or the individuals involved it’s quite general and may not be appropriate for your situation.

Perfect love and complete joy

What’s your emotional baseline?

As a melancholic my inner life has been characterised by anxiety, hypervigilance, doubt, struggle, and frequent dismay or despair.

Being an introvert, my inner life is essentially my entire life.

But I’ve been looking to change my life or my experience of it, and taking a cue from some familiar religious sources, I’ve set upon some emotional goals or ideals: perfect love, and complete joy.

Perfect love comes from 1 John:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

Anxiety is a form of fear. It is triggered (however unconsciously) by beliefs about the world, myself, and the intersection of the two. I’ve spent many years analysing my fears and their source, arriving finally at a point where there is nothing more to learn from them.

There is no fear in love, therefore, wherever possible, I’m replacing fear with love. Where it isn’t possible, I try to dig a little deeper and understand what’s going on, what lies behind the fear.

Complete joy comes from John’s Gospel:

Truly, truly, I tell you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give you. Until now you have not asked for anything in My name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.

Joy is the opposite of sorrow. We feel joy in response to good things, sorrow in response to bad. Complete joy implies complete goodness in life – a life so full of good things that our joy is complete.

That’s a pretty high bar to set.

Joy and love are different. We can experience love because God Himself is love, and love is the fundamental nature of reality. As children we experience love naturally. Love is, as it were, our default setting, but for various reasons it is drowned out or obscured by fear and sorrow.

We can experience joy because God is love, and love entails a desire for the good of the one loved. Put simply, when you love someone you want them to be happy.

Hence the reference to prayer, to asking God to give us things, and the assurance that He will do so. The omnipotent deity, the divine being behind and within all existence will shape that existence to our complete joy.

But why has He not already done so? Why do we have to even ask? If the ‘default’ setting is love, why is there so much evil and misery and hatred in the world?

Honestly I don’t know about “the world”, I only know my world. And with deep introspection I’ve found that every misery and hurt and fear in my life has been chosen by me.

That might sound strange or implausible, but it is true. Going back, I can recall key moments where I was threatened or terrified by some external event, and at that moment I assented to fear or anger or hurt and did not assent to love or faith or hope.

Ever since, I’ve maintained those fears and sorrows in my own inner world.

The great commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and Jesus implores us to remain in His love.

Anxiety means I am not remaining in that love, and while this shouldn’t be a cause for feeling guilty or blameworthy in an emotional sense, it does mean we are responsible. It is up to us to choose love instead of fear, though it may take a lot of time and effort to discover the moment where the wrong choice was made.

That is why life is not full of joy. We made choices in favour of sorrow and fear instead of love, and we have inwardly maintained those sorrows and fears ever since.

We actively reject love, though we may not be entirely conscious of it. I guess that’s why the commandment refers to all our heart, soul, and mind. All of it. Not just “a lot”.

Jesus said in terms of prayer that:

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

But we don’t believe, because we don’t have love. And while we might pray for things we feel we really want, I’ve found deep down that I’m divided. Praying for success when parts of you don’t really want to succeed, because they’re enmeshed in fears and sorrows. Praying for healing when parts of you are content with your disease.

The bottom line is that perfect love and complete joy are immanent, though they may not be imminent. But the more I examine myself and my own experience, the more it seems the resistance is all on my side.

Enlightenment and Depression

So…if your sense of self is really just a bunch of thoughts and impressions created by your mind – or more profoundly: the mind, Buddha-nature, God, consciousness, Brahman – then doesn’t that mean experiences of negative mental states like anxiety and depression are also products of this same mind?

All thoughts and impressions come from the same place. So although on the relative level your depression can be viewed as your reaction to negative life-events, on the absolute level there is no difference between “you” and “your reaction”. Both are products of mind.

Which is pretty weird, if you think about it.

It’s as if you’re a character in a story, and you think the things that befall you are due to your beliefs and choices and actions. But in fact both you and all the circumstances in and around you are created by the author. You have no control, because “you” are just another part of what is being written.

So when “you” start thinking about this, it’s not as though “you” are exercising your autonomy and control over your thoughts and circumstances. It means the author has gone from writing “you – who doesn’t think about this stuff” to writing “you – now thinking about this stuff and realising how weird it is”.

Likewise, these mental states like depression and anxiety; it’s not that “you” suddenly become afflicted by anxiety or depression. There’s no central, coherent, unified “you” who suffers those states. Instead the author has gone from writing “you without depression” to writing “you with depression”. If the depression stops, it will be because the author is now writing “you with depression stopping and feeling relieved about it”.

So what’s going on? Is the author an arsehole? Why is he or it inflicting so much suffering on everyone?

Well, the weird thing is that there is no “everyone” on whom suffering is inflicted.

There are temporary thoughts and impressions, some of which contain the belief that there is an “everyone” who is suffering.

But there are other temporary thoughts and impressions that recognise all thoughts and impressions as coming from the same place.

The thoughts that are full of suffering only think they are full of suffering. They aren’t actually full of suffering.

In other words, if you are depressed, but you then recognise that all thoughts and impressions come from the same place, then it’s not that you would stop being depressed, but that the “you” who feels assailed by depression would no longer be a separate, distinct, enduring entity who can be assailed by things like depression.

If the author writes a character experiencing depression, it’s not as though he first writes the character and then assails them with depression. No, the author writes the character-with-depression as one thing. Then later he writes the character-after-depression as another thing. There’s no actual, continuous character who exists from beginning to end and is assailed by depression, then recovers from it.

Moment by moment, our thoughts and impressions are coming from the same place. They don’t linger. Like the frames in a movie. Some objects in a movie scene might appear to stay still while others, like the actors, move around. But in reality we are seeing continuous individual frames. The sequence is composed of individual frames, and for an object just to remain static in place it must still be reproduced one frame at a time in every frame.

On the relative level we all have individual reasons for the negative mental states we experience. But on the absolute level, our negative mental states are all due to one thing: we mistake the “self” of our thoughts and impressions for an actual entity.

But who commits that mistake? Isn’t it too a product of the same author?

This is why there is such ambivalence about the nature of delusion in Buddhism, and the nature of evil in Christianity. If God is all powerful, is he also responsible for the existence of evil?

One thing is clear: despite the ambivalence over causation, delusion will be overcome and evil will be vanquished. There is no ambivalence about the end. Delusion and enlightenment, evil and good, they are not viewed as equal and opposite pairs.

Depression is a horrible experience, but when we recognise that both the experience and the apparent subject of that experience are products of thoughts and impressions that arise from the same place, then both the suffering and the one who suffers are transcended. The son of man has nowhere to lay his head.

At the same time, there comes the realisation that even this realisation itself has come from the same place as all the other thoughts and impressions. The quality has changed, but not the source.

And at that moment there comes the realisation that this realisation too is coming from the same place – that the author is now writing himself into the story as the author. And everything it took to arrive at this point – all the suffering and confusion and striving and grasping and gradual realisation – that too was the author, writing everything.

And when it stops, when realisation is replaced with forgetfulness and the door closes once more and it feels like “you” have returned to normal…who do you think is doing that?

Paypal gay picnic threat: a symbolic masterpiece in disguise

When I first saw this image on Paypal’s front page I just assumed it was a homophobic depiction of a small child fleeing in terror from a gay couple out for a picnic in the park.

gay picnic

Nice one Paypal, I thought, That’ll set the cause of sexual diversity back a couple of decades.

But then I took a closer look, and suddenly it struck me that the two men were uncannily similar in appearance. So similar, in fact, that they could be the same person.

ghost of parenting

That’s when I realised the true depth of meaning behind this otherwise totally innocuous image.

Imagine there’s only one man, the man in the beige shorts, and what do you have? Just a father happily taking his daughter out for a picnic lunch in the park. He’s nicely and colourfully dressed. He has a fond and amiable expression on his face. He’s hoisting a picnic basket, a mat and other picnic paraphenalia in somewhat jaunty fashion, with another bag slung over his left shoulder but hidden from view.

What about the daughter? In one sense she’s the perfect image of a happy child playing on her obviously new and expensive scooter with a kind of stock photo abandon. Yet her eyes are fixed, uncaring, straight ahead, belying her otherwise excited expression. There’s a callous tone to her excitement. She’s happy to be riding, but in truth she’s riding away from her father. She knows he can’t keep up, and this points to a deeper tension in the entire scene, a tension embodied in the man in the red shorts.

Red-shorts-man is clearly an older version of the father. Like the ghost of picnics-future his hair is grayed and his whole appearance is faded and wan. Even his shoes have been drained of their colour.

His face is weary, pale, and full of apprehension. He watches his daughter through heavily-lidded eyes, his mouth open on the verge of an exhausted cry, his head tipped back as if he can hardly find the strength to keep it upright.

What is he? Is he a ghost? A photographic negative? Or is he an image of the subconscious mind, the hidden depths of the father’s soul in which lie all manner of anxieties and stress, in which the burden of keeping up the appearance of a picture-perfect picnicking parent is just too much to bear? To fully understand we must look to the symbols that attend the man in red shorts.

On his left hand he wears a watch, symbolising awareness of time and heightening our sense of urgency. Yet the watch dial is hidden from view, pressed against his shoulder by the burden he carries. Yes, time is a burden and the burdens we bear warp our perception of time. How long have they travelled? How soon must they return? These thoughts are both brought into being and simultaneously crushed by the increasing distance between father and daughter and his secret apprehension of what lies in wait further down the path.

Red-shorts-man is on the father’s left side, representing the introspective, introverted aspect of our psyche. While the father’s right hand (extroverted, conscious mind) is preoccupied with the picnic-materials, his ghostly companion clings desperately to the left. He expands the father’s hidden burden – the bag on the left shoulder. At the same time the father shrugs his shoulder against the ghostly presence, as if to deny its existence.

Red-shorts-man is in the midst of a powerful stride. He marches ahead, pulling the father forward, urging haste.  And yet at the same time he is somehow insubstantial. Like a balloon about to take flight he threatens to hover, incorporeal, as fears and anxieties draw us away too from our enjoyment of the present moment.

Red-shorts-man’s shoulders are equally weighted with baggage, he is fully laden not only with life’s present burdens but with the accumulated cares and concerns of the past. Is he truly older? No, his age, like his faded appearance represent the toll these cares and worries take on us all.

Why then the red shorts?

Red is a primal colour, a colour of fear and of blood, the two elements that bind father and daughter. Blood is family, heredity, relation. The fear, the terror of separation and loss echo through the father’s subconscious mind. But why shorts? Shorts are metaphorically at “the bottom”. They tie into a deep history of biological allusions not only to reproduction (the father as father) but also to our rich vocabulary of intestinal profanities: Crap! S***! Bugger!

They also point to the upper legs, the thighs, the powerful quadriceps muscles and the fight-or-flight response that has him set to run, to take off in pursuit of the daughter at the first sign of danger.

And what is this danger?

In a word: nature. Mother nature, human nature, the world beneath and beyond the limits of human civilisation.

The father, the man in red shorts, are safely on the path. The bold clear lines of concrete cut a swathe through the terrifying darkness of the wild. But it is into this wild that the daughter now careers headlong.

To the left of the image nature dominates. It is the unknown territory Paypal would have us ‘unleash’ and ‘explore’.

And yet…just where the trees should be at their thickest we see the edge of another path and even a glimmer of a fence or railing, more vestiges of civilisation.

In the end Paypal leaves us with a puzzle. It tells us “New Money takes you on new adventures” and extols a “sense of wonder”. But the world it offers us to explore is already bounded and fenced-in. It is safe. The only danger is an appearance of danger, the only fear is failing to have enough New Money to be happy.

At this final point the entire project is cast into doubt. What is there to fear if everything is mapped out, paved, and fenced-in?

The tantalising answer suggests itself: this very incongruity, the call to adventure in the midst of a fully bounded and stagnant landscape, is itself the instigator of an existential dread.

Yes, this is the true nature of the father’s subconscious fear. It is not fear for his daughter’s safety, but fear of the future she represents. The bulk of the red-shorts-man’s burdens are not on his right (extroversion, the real world), but on his left (introversion, the inner world). His anxiety is not for real-world incidents but an anxiety of meaning and purpose.

Westerners read from left to right and our interpretation of compositions is coloured by this influence. Yet the people in this composition are traversing from right to left across the screen. They are moving back into the past, to a place where the father at least has already been, where there is no adventure, no uncertainty, no possibilities. The daughter represents the future, but even she is returning to the past, and the circularity of the path suggests an endless loop of generations and of experience.

There is nothing new under the sun, Paypal cries, echoing Ecclesiastes. The father’s fond amiability, the daughter’s naive excitement, they spin together in a fixed orbit while red-shorts-man goes along, the only clue to something awry in this happy spectacle of endless and repetitive consumption. “Trip of a lifetime!” the caption mocks, as if to shock us from our complacence, its irony a stinging rebuke to the public perception of online shopping as the sine qua non of a brighter tomorrow.