On knowing what you’re doing

I seem to be one of those people who needs to understand fully what he’s doing and why, before he can commit real energy to it.

Some people seem to be content with just leaping into an exercise or practice. Maybe they work it out as they go along, or maybe they already have a better “feel” for how it’s supposed to work.

Whatever the reason, I crave a systematic and deep understanding of the things I do.

The things I don’t understand have proven to be challenging. Martial arts are the best example: I’ve been doing it for 17 years, but I still don’t have a clear understanding of how it is supposed to work.

That’s like driving without a destination in mind, but still hoping to get somewhere specific!

Bear in mind that my idea of having a clear understanding of how something works is to perfectly control all the relevant variables to their necessary degrees. That is, I don’t require useless knowledge of how things work, I just need to know enough to calibrate my own actions and controls.

I’ve applied this approach to posture and biomechanics over the past year, and it’s achieved good results. Learning how the shoulder girdle is supposed to function, how the ribs, pelvis, and spine should align, when the glutes and hamstrings are supposed to activate…I wish I’d learned it all years ago.

There’s still more to do, but it’s obviously been worthwhile. The only challenge is that every body is unique to some degree, and so it takes time to work out precisely what is going wrong. Plus, posture is a function of the whole body. It won’t be completely right until it’s completely right.

Meditation is another good example.

I’ve tried different forms over the years and none of them have been worth continuing. The problem is that I don’t understand in sufficient detail how they are supposed to function, what the benefits are supposed to be, and how it relates to my internal landscape.

The first book I read on meditation was really about awareness generally. It was called ‘Awareness’ in fact, by a Jesuit priest from India named Anthony de Mello.

De Mello’s work came under criticism at one stage by then-head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger. He (correctly, in my view) warned against the syncretist implications of de Mello’s work, and other inferences that conflicted with Catholic teaching.

My criticism of ‘Awareness’ was that it promised too much, too vaguely. Perhaps it was okay as an introductory text, but like many self-help books it implied that simply being aware is a panacea that leads to spiritual enlightenment.

Everyone is different, at least to some degree. And mindfulness, awareness, trying to be more conscious, are not panaceae.

Nonetheless, there is obviously a role for being more conscious of one’s thoughts and impressions. For me, that role is becoming more evident and necessary, as I begin to notice how my mood and my motives are steered by very subtle thoughts and fears.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we form a self-image from childhood that dictates — like a character in a novel — how we live the rest of our lives. But that self-image is typically false. We don’t know who we are, we simply live according to habits and beliefs developed at an early age.

Not knowing who we are is a challenge, because we cannot simply replace our flawed self-image with a new and improved one.

But we can pay attention to when our self-image steers us. We can notice the occasions when our past dictates our present behaviour.

This seems to occur through the influence of subtle, momentary thoughts and impressions that invoke our flawed self-image. If we pay attention, we can notice these subtle influences and decide not to follow them.

If we don’t pay attention, we will follow them out of habit, largely unconscious of them, but feeling their negative effect.

The answer therefore is a disciplined, consistent effort to be conscious of these subtle influences.

Now, this sounds very much like ‘mindfulness’, which various people and popular culture have urged us all to enthusiastically embrace.

But the difference for me is that I have a precise purpose, I understand the direction. I know what I’m looking for, and what the outcome will be.

That’s the difference understanding makes. I’m not flailing around on popular recommendation, seeking to do this thing called mindfulness. Instead I’ve recognised that to make further progress I need to pay very close, very consistent attention to a specific set of influences in my mind.

Imagine you’re a phleg

Melancholics are the most unusual of the four temperaments, but also the most rare. As a result of their rarity, melancholics tend not to find exemplars or role models; they may not be able to truly relate to any of their peers.

Perhaps for these reasons, melancholics typically do not understand themselves well. They might look at all the sanguines, phlegmatics, and cholerics, and try to emulate the qualities exhibited by these temperaments. But none of them will be a true fit.

In fact, melancholics can come to grief by misidentifying with their closest temperament, the phlegmatic.  The phlegmatic, you may recall, is similar to the melancholic in that neither experiences strong reactions to stimuli. Yet they differ in that the melancholic forms lasting impressions of things, while the phlegmatic’s impressions do not last long. You could say that melancholics are phlegmatics with long memories.

Or alternatively, imagine a melancholic with a short memory and that is essentially a phlegmatic. Imagine if, as a melancholic, you could do things without being assailed by countless deep memories and impressions of every problem, shortfall, and fault in your experience and the experience of others.  It’s not that phlegmatics truly forget things, but these impressions just aren’t as prominent in their minds.  The phlegmatic mind does not regard these memories as especially salient.

This is what gives the phlegmatic their easy-going nature. They aren’t easily excited, nor are they internally driven by deep impressions. They are usually happy to go along with others, avoid rocking the boat, and can be left to their own devices.

Because they are not excitable, phlegmatics often present as introverts, and because of this apparent introversion, melancholics may incorrectly identify with them. This mis-identification is problematic because in social contexts melancholics are always looking for clues as to the ideal way to behave. A phlegmatic may appear to be socially adept, good natured, well-liked, relaxed, happy and comfortable; all qualities that can seem just out of reach for the melancholic.

Yet phlegmatics differ from melancholics in two very potent ways. Firstly, phlegmatics are not assailed by enduring, pessimistic impressions of things that have gone wrong, could go wrong, and probably will go wrong. Their easy-going nature is not a skilled, careful poise between enjoyment and disaster; they are, if my phlegmatic friends will excuse me, a bit like human potatoes – comparatively impervious to the fears and anxieties that wrack the melancholic.

When, as discussed in the previous post, a melancholic is considering attending a normal social gathering, we tend to regard ourselves as if we were not melancholics at all, but mysteriously anxious, awkward, or depressed phlegmatics. That is, we wrongly imagine ourselves to be phlegmatics – easy-going, unfazed phlegmatics – who will surely enjoy whatever social environment we end up in if we can somehow shake this irrational sense of pervasive dread at the thought of going out.

But the fact that the mere anticipation of some soiree, concert, or festival can leave us grappling with the meaning of life, reality, and existence itself is a fairly strong indicator that the phlegmatic approach to life is not for us. If I were truly honest with myself, I would have to admit that these conventional social outings were an added burden on top of a hundred other obligations, and that the effort of voluntarily celebrating in some minor, insignificant form would betray my profound sense of dismay at life more generally.

Or to put it another way: it’s bad enough that I had to stumble through the obligatory, banal demands of school, university, and working life, but on top of that I had to attend voluntary social functions and pretend to be happy about it all?

But even so, opting out is not a satisfying answer. Melancholics do care about their friends, but what can you do when your friends are socially avid sanguines, cholerics and phlegmatics, who interpret opting out of social events as a rejection of friendship? Perhaps that’s why the melancholic (second from left) is always depicted as such a relaxed and happy fellow:

Choleric, Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic

 

That’s the face of an irresolvable internal conflict.

But it’s not all bad news. The second major difference between phlegmatics and melancholics is that phlegmatics lack the powerful idealism of the melancholic. To emulate a phlegmatic would be to deny this powerful aspect of our own temperament. Without idealism, the melancholic temperament would indeed be as miserable as a depressed phlegmatic.

The idea of ‘artistic temperament’ often pairs great creativity with bouts of misery, but in the melancholic temperament this relationship is much easier to understand: we see the world through the lens of ideals, and while the ideals can be the most perfect and inspired visions, the reality usually falls short. Trying to fit into an imperfect world, a society ruled by other temperaments, is a source of distress and misery. But the bright side can more than compensate for this distress if we invest in our ideals rather than investing in conformity.

After all, the phlegmatic may be easy-going; he may even achieve great things in music, philosophy, writing, or other creative and intellectual pursuits, but he is not driven, impassioned, and inspired by profound ideals. He is not moved as the melancholic is moved; and ultimately it is our enduring impressions, the ‘long memory’ that assails us when we contemplate some social gathering or work event, that is equally responsible for our most meaningful and potent ideals.

Our deep, enduring impressions extend the range of our inner world, lending us an expansive, complex domain we seek to conquer or transform.  Our long memory moves us to seek not easy answers but ultimate ones, answers that are powerful enough to give meaning to the whole of life, reality, and existence.

I think that to really understand our struggle with everyday life, we need to recognise firstly that our ‘everyday life’ is lived in the shadow of our inner search for meaning and answers; yet it is a search carried out by a rare minority, and one temperamentally inclined to introversion and withdrawal from society.  As such, this ‘inner meaning’ is less and less present to everyday life. The two are increasingly polarised, and it can seem to the melancholic that they are entirely alone, merely disqualified from a normal existence by some yet-to-be-identified fault.

I think it is up to us, then, to start to bring our ideals back into everyday life. It is up to us to more openly reject and push back against the conventions established or shaped by other temperaments – not in a hostile manner, but merely by making space for genuine idealism that is not subordinate to the approval of other temperaments with their vastly different motivations and values.