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.


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.


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.


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.

Anxiety and the Melancholic: part one

I spent many years trying to rid myself of anxiety by different methods, both conventional and unconventional.

But I still suffer from anxiety, and honestly I don’t know if I will ever truly be free of it.  I will certainly never be “free” from anxiety in the sense of being able to live my life exactly as I live it now, but without any trace of fear or apprehension or stress.

That’s because my anxiety is, as best I can tell, the result of conflict between my temperament and my environment.  My temperament is melancholic, and my environment is ruled by principles, practices, and preoccupations that are, if not totally foreign to me, at least very low down my private list of priorities.

Melancholics are idealists. We seek the ideal in every situation, and we are prone to a kind of self-inflicted suffering when we cannot meet the ideal, or when the ideal seems impossible, or when we grab hold of an ideal that isn’t really authentic or reasonable.

Life is especially difficult if we do not recognise the nature of our own idealism, and how it differs (often profoundly) from the motives and perspectives of other temperaments.

Let’s look at one simple example of idealism that causes anxiety:

Imagine you have the ideal of the perfect host, someone who is always available to entertain and provide hospitality to everyone you meet, with a perfectly clean and beautiful home, and a ready supply of good food and drink.

Imagine that you somehow get stuck in the role of perfect host for your extended family on every major holiday and milestone.  Every year you inevitably end up hosting long lunches or dinners for a dozen or so people, who seem to take for granted that this is your role, business as usual.

Imagine playing this role for ten, fifteen, or twenty years; going through an annual cycle of stressful preparation, enduring the day itself, and collapsing in exhaustion after the last relative leaves.

In this scenario, the melancholic becomes a victim of their own ideals. They may not want to host the big family get-together. They may not even like such events regardless of who hosts them. But on some level they accede to ideals of family togetherness, being the perfect host, not disappointing people, and so on.

A melancholic caught in such a situation will feel increasingly burdened by their own ideals and their sense of others’ expectations. They will grow to resent each year’s calendar of events – however sparse they might be – but will continually suppress their resentment for the sake of their unanswerable ideals.

Anxiety in this instance may stand for a range of unpleasant feelings that leave the melancholic in the unenviable position of routinely forcing themselves to do things they do not want to do.

Clash of temperaments

We are all familiar with the cliche of artists or creators feeling compromised by commercial forces. We understand that artistic integrity is often at the mercy of finance, and this means that artists must learn to compromise in order to survive. But it can also mean that the best art, the best creations, even the best products are hidden from the mainstream.

The ‘artistic temperament’ has a great deal in common with the melancholic temperament, though not all artists are melancholic and not all melancholics are artists. But in terms of being idealistic, of having a vision of how things could be, the comparison is apt.

What makes melancholics unique is a combination of two basic factors: how excitable they are, and how long-lasting their impressions are. Melancholics are not easily excited by external stimuli, but they form very long-lasting impressions. Compare them with the other three temperaments:


The sanguine is highly excitable, but does not form lasting impressions. Sanguines are typical “party people” who love excitement, and can be quite emotional, but quickly and easily change their minds and their emotions. They typically like nice objects, and are motivated by having fun and engaging with others.


Phlegmatics are not very excitable, and also do not form lasting impressions. Phlegmatics are extremely easy-going, don’t like conflict, and are happy to either do their own thing or go along with the crowd.


Cholerics are excitable and, like the melancholic, they form long-lasting impressions. They are typically ambitious and have a strong sense of self-worth. They like challenges, can be quite proud, and will gravitate toward leadership positions.

Anxiety as clash of temperaments

While the different temperaments can work well together, in the context of anxiety the melancholics is especially vulnerable to quiet conflict and struggle on account of the other temperaments.

If we do not recognise the significance of the different temperaments, we will make the mistake of holding ourselves to standards that do not apply, and create for ourselves ideals that are not truly our own.  Our society is more obviously shaped by the values and priorities of the other temperaments. A typical melancholic will look around at the rest of society and try to place themselves in it, without realising that what is most visible and obvious is, almost by definition, not appropriate for the melancholic.

Clashing with a sanguine

For example, a melancholic who grows up around sanguines will feel insufficiently sociable, unable to keep up with the high energy and excitement of the sanguine temperament. Our society is profoundly influenced by the “fun-loving” sanguine.  Media and advertising take advantage of their infectious enthusiasm, and reinforce the image of expressive, emotive, and exuberant personal style as a kind of ideal. Yet for most melancholics this ideal will simply be unobtainable. We do not have the kind of energy that a sanguine has. We are not immediately excited by large crowds, bright lights, and loud music. We are not energised by buying new clothes or a new car or going to see a new movie (unless these things accord with our personal ideals: the ideal clothing, car, or movie).

But there’s a flip-side to all this sanguine energy. Sanguines make quick, impulsive decisions, often without much forethought or consideration. They tend to change their mind easily, and necessarily back away from poorly-considered choices.  And while the sanguine can easily “get over” anger, sadness, and disappointment, sometimes we need to learn from these things before we let them go.

By contrast, a melancholic can’t help but dwell on anger, sorrow, and disappointment. We turn these troublesome and painful events over and over in our minds, often months and even years later. Like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go until every last bit of life has been drawn out of the painful or instructive memory; and even then we may return to it to rehash and recapitulate the lesson.

When a sanguine says “live life with no regrets”, they typically mean “try everything, don’t hold back, seize every opportunity, live life to the full.” When a melancholic hears “live life with no regrets” he slowly reminisces on all the stupid, embarrassing or foolish things he’s ever done. The melancholic life is full of regret – but it’s more the regret for the consequences of mistakes than for opportunities left unexplored.

Melancholics will experience anxiety if they fail to recognise the fundamental differences between themselves and the sanguines of this world. Trying to match sanguines, let alone beat them at their own game, is a recipe for melancholic exhaustion, fatigue, and anxiety.  I don’t think I will ever stop feeling anxiety in apprehension of some forthcoming social occasion. This is because most social occasions are slated toward the strengths of the sanguine temperament, where a love of crowds, genuine enthusiasm, and a short memory for embarrassment and mistakes makes the sanguine impervious to anxiety in many if not most social occasions.

So what is the solution?

Ultimately I think the solution is to be true to your own temperament. If you don’t enjoy sanguine social occasions, it’s okay not to go to them. A great deal of anxiety comes from forcing ourselves to do things we simply do not wish to do. Unfortunately, when we look at sanguines without understanding how they are different, we make the mistake of treating their unique features as ideals that we must simply strive to mirror. If I just try hard enough, I can be at ease in the purposeless social engagement I don’t really want to go to. If I just “let go” I too can find happiness in impulse-purchases of shiny consumer goods.  If I just get out there and have fun, I can forget about how someone’s behaviour is making me uncomfortable, or how I’m not entirely okay with the direction my work is headed, and so on.

These are false ideals for the melancholic. We have our own strengths and weaknesses, and while we can learn from the strengths and weaknesses of others, we must do so with awareness of our fundamental differences.  And when it comes to anxiety, remember that the other temperaments can suffer just as much as the melancholic does; it just happens that the other temperaments are quicker to realise what they do and do not like, and hence our society provides them with more obvious answers to their fears and desires.

Our society does not, for example, encourage sanguines to be less sociable, to live more simple, modest lives, and to sacrifice everything they enjoy for the sake of some deep and obscure ideal.  Imagine if society encouraged sanguines to take a vow of silence, to spend long periods of time alone, or to give up all their possessions, as strongly as it encourages melancholics to party, be heavily invested in social media, and accumulate pointless possessions.

Of course, melancholics do not want to become hermits either (at least not typically), and simply refusing to do anything that makes you anxious could end up making you more sensitive to anxiety and hence even more restricted in your routine. The solution here may be to recognise that the real cause of anxiety is not in going to some sanguine event, but in failing to conform to the sanguine attributes. The anxiety might come from the thought of being at such an event, and failing to be as sparkling, witty, extroverted, or fun-loving as the sanguine ideal tells us we ought to be.  Indeed, it is easier to not go to something than to go to it and be viewed as boring, tedious, too reserved or seemingly in a bad mood all night.

This happens, by the way. On the rare occasions when I have gone to an event and not tried to appear more expressive and excited than I was, I have typically been asked if I’m okay, if I’m sick, if something is wrong, or that I should smile more, have more fun, mingle more, and so on.  But if you are happy to go and just “be yourself”, then surely that is good enough? We can’t all be sanguines, and we shouldn’t have to pretend to be sanguine just to avoid offending or upsetting others. Yet after decades of being implicitly told that sanguines are the ideal for social engagements, it is hard to put down that mask.

For some of us, the mask is so firmly attached that we no longer recognise the difference between our true feelings and our learned responses, or between what we really want to do, and what we believe we ought to want to do.  In such cases, anxiety might feel inexplicable. We may not recognise the deeper conflict that is producing it, or the deeper nature onto which we are imposing more superficial demands.

I hope this description of conflict between temperaments is useful. In subsequent posts I will look at the conflicts that arise between melancholics and the remaining two temperaments: choleric and phlegmatic.

Feel free to ask any questions or seek further clarification; I’ll do my best to answer (because that’s what the ideal blogger should do!)




Self-will gets in the Way

“People often say, “We have goodwill.” Theirs is not God’s will, though; they want to have their own way and dictate to God to do so and so. That is not goodwill. We must find out from God what his will is. Broadly speaking, what God wills is that we should give up willing…

There is no making of a proper man without surrender of the will. In fact, unless we give up our will without reserve, we cannot work with God at all. But suppose it came about that we did give up our own will altogether and had the heart to rid ourselves of every single thing inside and out for God, then we would have accomplished everything, and not before.  Of such people few are to be found. Knowingly or unknowingly they want something definite, some experience of higher things. They are set on this condition or that boon. It is nothing whatever but self-will. Abandon to God altogether your self and all things without any qualms as to what he will do with his own…

There is no true and perfect will until, entering wholly into God’s will, a man has no will of his own.”

Meister Eckhart

It’s been a long time since I read any of Eckhart, but I opened him today to this section and it reminded me immediately of my recent reading of Wang Bi’s commentary on the Daodejing or Laozi:

An attitude [corresponding to] the capacity of the hollow is the only means to follow the Way.
Hollow means empty. Only having taken being empty as [one’s] capacity will one then be able to act in accordance with the Way.

That’s just one line, but if I quote more of it I’ll never get to bed tonight.  The Way is “empty” yet it guides and nourishes things according to their nature. For humans to return to the Way, we should likewise empty ourselves and be without contrived action; then we will act in accordance with our nature.

The difficulty of this is hard to overstate, but is most evident when, as Eckhart notes, we set ourselves on particular conditions, paying lip-service to the Way or the divine Will, whilst clinging nonetheless to our own will.

There needs to be an element of trust that in abandoning self-will and the outcomes or ideals we covet, we are in fact abandoning obstacles to the fulfillment of our nature.  Sometimes the goals we have in mind are simply wrong for us – they will not bring the satisfaction they seem to promise. But even when the goals are good, noble, and true, we still miss out on the higher goal of surrender.

I suspect this might be the meaning of “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Likewise “the man of highest virtue never acts, yet nothing is left undone.”

But that can mean embracing the reality of circumstances that seem to deny your deepest hopes and dreams; worse – it means dragging your deepest hopes and dreams into the light of a faith that will feel too cold and too harsh for the delicate fantasies of your self-will.

There are undoubtedly consolations to be had after the fact, but this is beside the point; the point is that no matter how good and alluring our dreams and desires may be, if we cannot abandon them for the sake of the divine will, the Way, then we are merely clinging to burdens of our own creation.


Trauma and the ingratiate melancholic

The past few days have brought up several instances that bring to mind a phenomenon I will call the ingratiate melancholic.

As mentioned in a previous post, the melancholic has a tendency to act towards others according to ideals of human behaviour that do not necessarily match how he actually feels, what he really wants or values.

The ideal spouse, friend, child, parent, guest or host, all of these impose an expectation or a role that the melancholic might feel more comfortable, more self-assured if he adheres to.  But at the same time, in adhering to the role, the melancholic is not truly being himself. He is not being true to himself and is not developing the virtue of sincerity.  His motives may be good, but he is actually giving people less of himself than if he were able to express the thoughts and feelings that do not fit into that ideal.

There is, however, another way to interpret this phenomenon: through the lens of the human response to trauma and stress.

An excellent book on Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by Pete Walker introduces the concept of PTSD developed not through single traumatic events but through consistent patterns of traumatic abuse and neglect, such that the individual develops survival-mechanisms or maladaptive responses to trauma that are in turn subject to the abusive environment. The individual is left with a personality riven through by maladaptive responses; he may not even know which parts of himself are ‘original’ and which are maladaptive response, because both have developed together and are interdependent.  So while sufferers of PTSD may be conscious of distinct personality differences before and after the trauma, for complex PTSD sufferers, no such distinction can be made.

Walker describes maladaptive responses in terms of four instinctive responses to trauma. To the well-known triad of fight, flight, and freeze, he adds the ingratiating response of ‘fawn’.  For people in long-term abuse or neglect scenarios, the most successful maladaptive strategy can become an ingrained part of the personality, whether it be fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning.  Of particular interest in the context of the melancholic temperament is Walker’s depiction of the ‘fawn’ response type:

Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. They often begin life like the precocious children described in Alice Miler’s The Drama Of The Gifted Child, who learn that a modicum of safety and attachment can be gained by becoming the helpful and compliant servants of their parents. They are usually the children of at least one narcissistic parent who uses contempt to press them into service, scaring and shaming them out of developing a healthy sense of self: an egoic locus of self-protection, self-care and self-compassion.

Walker does not utilise a temperament theory, but what interests me is the possibility that the melancholic temperament may be predisposed to developing the ingratiating ‘fawn’ strategy in response to environments that may or may not be dysfunctional in and of themselves, but are experienced as such by the melancholic child in the absence of positive role models or intelligible social and cultural messages and cues.

While a melancholic child could develop any one of the trauma responses, or multiple trauma responses, the fawn response is in many ways most appropriate to the melancholic child’s circumstances.  Firstly, like phlegmatics, melancholics are not well-attuned to the external environment to begin with, but unlike phlegmatics they also struggle to recover from traumatic experiences and incidents. An extreme melancholic child will struggle to recognise the same cues or mirror the behaviours of other children, yet will be acutely aware of this disparity and may well suffer for it. Persistent disorientation, confusion, and implicit ostracism can exacerbate actual dysfunctions in family and environment, such that the melancholic child is more severely traumatised than a child of a different temperament would be.

Yet at the same time, the causes of these trauma are systemic and normalised: imagine a melancholic child sitting confused and disoriented in a classroom where all the other children show no signs of confusion or disorientation.  If the child expresses his confusion and disorientation he will be the subject of negative attention from the teacher and other students. Of the available responses to this negative attention, fight and flight will only exacerbate it. That leaves freeze and fawn, though even freezing will bring about greater negative attention than the meekness and compliance of the fawn response.

Extrapolate this dynamic across nearly every aspect of life: the growing melancholic child fears hurt and humiliation, has a long memory for it, yet is predisposed to experience it afresh because of his relatively slow and sedate response to external stimuli. Surely such children will learn soon enough that the best way to avoid humiliation, trauma, and negative attention is to ingratiate oneself with others (especially authority figures) where possible – learning to play a compliant, amenable, obedient and good-natured role.

For adult melancholics, the pressure to maintain this long-practiced response to stress and trauma can be both reasonable and deeply emotive. On the one hand, it is reasonable to take care in how you express yourself verbally to others, so as not to unwittingly offend people with careless statements. On the other hand, it is certainly a maladaptive strategy to maintain a deeply guarded approach to social interactions, and to filter one’s statements compulsively so as to avoid any possible negative interpretations.

The danger identified through the complex PTSD concept is that melancholics may mistake this maladaptive strategy for their own personality.  They may think that they are ‘nice’ people or ‘considerate’ people rather than simply fearful and ingratiating people, who may even lack the capacity to exercise consideration or ‘niceness’ when their behaviour is already so tightly determined by stress-oriented strategies.

They may find themselves acting in ways that deny their actual thoughts, feelings, and values due to the ingrained influence of their maladaptive responses. Ultimately, they risk being unable to express themselves honestly and sincerely with friends and loved ones, living instead through the filter of an unwarranted survival mechanism that has outlived its usefulness.


The obligated melancholic

Melancholic idealists have a tendency to undermine themselves in the service of their ideals.

The melancholic’s capacity to sacrifice everything for the sake of an ideal is potentially noble, but in practice most of us do not live for a single, pure and unadulterated ideal. In practice we utilise a number of ideals to navigate the complexities and frustrations of everyday life.  So while it would make sense – in an ideal world – for a melancholic to wholeheartedly embrace their perfect ideal, in this far-from-ideal world we need to be aware of the potential for imperfectly considered or one-sided ideals to make life unnecessarily difficult.

Perhaps for these purposes we could take as our ideal that “life should not be unnecessarily difficult”, and then scrutinise instances of excessive struggle or unwarranted suffering?

In addition to being sick at present, I’ve also managed to somehow injure my neck or upper back at a particularly busy time of year.  Yet as much as I hate being sick and injured, I try to find some significance in the suffering, and this has led me to recognise an oversight in my existing idealism.

Important versus Important-to-me

One of my stronger ideals is that I ought to assist with important things that are within the range of my power and responsibility.  In other words “because it’s important!” is the coercive logic of a hundred different things I don’t want to do, but feel I ought.

The ideal behind this is that a person should, at the very least, do what he reasonably can to assist with something important. But how do we know what is important? The fact is that nearly everything is important to someone, or to put it another way: the intersection of “things that are important to someone” and “things that are reasonably within my power” is potentially, frighteningly, huge.

This swathe of potential obligations probably doesn’t trouble most people, but for a melancholic possessed of the ideal described above, it can seem as though the only way to avoid an endless stream of demands, requests, and obligations is to withdraw from them. Yet we cannot withdraw from our own beliefs, and the sense of “if I don’t do it, no one will” is harder to escape than any external request for assistance.

All of this is the result of operating on the basis of ideals or principles, in a context where the melancholic is unable to offer an in-principle reason for not undertaking endless obligations.  It leaves the melancholic feeling already overstretched and overburdened, regardless of how many actual obligations he might have.

What is needed is a principle or mechanism for limiting the pool of potential demands and obligations.  Being already too busy, having a young family to look after, generally not having enough time: these are good reasons to refuse future obligations, but for a melancholic there will always be the temptation to sacrifice more and more of their own time, energy, and even health if they can get the job done.

A better principle lies in the distinction between “important” and “important to me”; a distinction that is, I think, already implicit for most people.  I think that for most people “important” implies “important for me”, whereas for a melancholic it can be hard to justify the self-centred addition of “for me”.  In fact, melancholics may not have a very strong or very clear sense of their own interests and personal preferences in the first place; they may find themselves becoming enthusiastic and idealistic about almost anything, no matter how remote it is from their own experience.

But there is nonetheless a distinction to be made, and a melancholic can make the distinction if they know how. The distinction between “important” and “important to me” limits the pool of potential obligations to things that I actually care about, as opposed to things I might come to care about if I try, or things others care about, or things I don’t care about at all but which are within my power to further or assist.

Other temperaments might be led astray from their own sense of priority through analogous means: phlegmatics simply by going along with others and not rocking the boat, sanguines through friendship and fellowship, and cholerics through ambition and the esteem of others.  Perhaps each of these temperaments is equally susceptible to harming their own integrity through the promise and appeal of their respective motives?

But as a distinct minority it is perhaps harder for melancholics to recognise when they are allowing their ideals to get the better of them. Our ideals are, after all, our primary way of making sense of the world and it is difficult to challenge them without first establishing a rival ideal or learning from the experience of rare exemplars.

From my observations, non-melancholics react to potential obligations differently, and hence offer advice like “don’t do it if you don’t want to”, or “just say you’re too busy”, which to a melancholic comes across as “just pragmatically lie or make something up in this one situation with no underlying logic or principle justifying it”.

Granted, saying “this isn’t important to me” probably wouldn’t go down too well, but more important than what is said is the ideal or principle behind it. It might even turn out that a lot of the things that seem “important” but not “important to me” aren’t really that important to anyone else either.  Either way, to feel ‘off the hook’ for a vast array of potential yet unlikely obligations is an immense relief, and that alone can make saying either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ an entirely new proposition.


Learn to crush your dreams

For any melancholic a vital skill consists in learning to crush your own dreams, and see through your ideals.

This might sound a little depressing and counter-intuitive, but for melancholics there is a real danger that the ideal will drive us to extremes of attitude and action, leaving us obsessed or even possessed by a single all-encompassing dream.

I’ve had it happen to me on numerous occasions: recently when I decided that I should put everything into my writing, and subsequently felt as though every moment was either a writing moment or a wasted one. I became productive, yes, but more importantly I became acutely conscious of the disparity between reality and ideal. As time progressed and my creativity inevitably slowed, the ideal became an indictment of my stupidity, laziness, ineptitude and ultimately my humanity.

There’s nothing wrong with having a dream or an ideal, and for melancholics it is essential. But we slip up when we allow ourselves to believe that if we attain the ideal everything else will change. The fact is that when or if we ever could attain our ideals, we would very quickly find ourselves bored, dissatisfied, and ready to move on to something bigger and better.

Crushing one’s dreams is really about reminding yourself -often painfully- that the idealised outcome is really not that wonderful. Good? Yes. Desirable? Certainly. Life-changing? To a degree. But only a degree.

I’m currently in the midst of another ideal: this time the ideal of creating ever more wonderful and satisfying products. I’ve made bread, beer, yoghurt, rice wine, coffee, limoncello, pasta and pasta sauce; but all I can think is that I can’t move fast enough onto the next round of magnificent consumables: bacon, soy sauce, tofu, sake, sea salt, mozzarella, fetta, and about half a dozen other ideas that elude me at present.

All of these take time, preparation, equipment; and all I can see is that I’m falling short on all three.

The problem is that I’m letting the dream take over. I’m implicitly accepting that the more I get these delicious products in play, the more my life will change for the better. The problem is that this is entirely true, just not as significant as it seems. This manic phase of urgent productivity is not at all healthy. It strips the enjoyment from the process, turning these enriching and satisfying products into a mere list of achievements.

Seeing through an ideal, crushing a dream, neither of these means repudiating the goal. It just means we need to remind ourselves that true happiness is distinct from these enticing activities, goals, or accomplishments. They are well worth having, but not at a cost to one’s genuine happiness.

When I feel the pressure of the ideal mounting, I try to remind myself that happiness, peace, and a relaxed state of quiet are achievable at any moment. There are no prerequisites, so long as I am not driving myself to distraction in the first place.

There’s no denying that my ideals are pointing me toward a better, more enriched and satisfying life. But it won’t be any of those things if I lose all perspective along the way.

The ideal approach

Melancholics are idealists, and in any venture or activity we seek out and adhere to the ideal.

This can be both an advantage and an obstacle. For example, I mentioned in a previous post that I always thought the ideal approach to exercise would be to incorporate it into everyday life, avoiding ‘exercise for its own sake’.

What I neglected in this approach is that such an ideal may not be attainable given the circumstances of a contemporary lifestyle, but also that people do in fact ‘exercise’ for fun and enjoyment. People run, ride, walk and play sports because it is enjoyable. But if you presume at the outset that exercise is onerous and pointless exercise is adding insult to injury, then this insight will evade you.

Growing up with numerous vague and confounding frailties of posture, coordination, physical tension, fatigue and other interrelated yet undiscovered obstacles may have contributed to this blind-spot toward exercise. On my better days it is obvious that exercise is enjoyable. But most days merely remaining upright is enough of an effort to make exercise seem implausibly demanding.

Nonetheless, since I started jogging regularly I’ve noticed a number of minor improvements, but more pertinent to this post, I found myself once again inclining toward the ideal – idealising the difficulty and purity of running or jogging as a simple and complete form of exercise.

What this shows is that ideals can be mistaken, ideals can be incomplete, but ideals can also be useful.

Perhaps it is best to consider ideals in this context: not so much as eternal and objective truths to be discovered but as a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding, communicating, teaching, and learning.

For example, I’ve been learning a particular martial art for about 16 years now, and for nearly half that time I was preoccupied – perhaps ‘obsessed’ is a better word – with finding a definitive copy of the names of the various moves in Chinese. My teacher’s generation were more focused on actually learning the art, and admittedly it seems a bit strange to feel that the name of a movement is in any way key to understanding or performing the movement. A fist by any other name will smack you just as hard around the head.

It’s only taken eight years for my enthusiasm to dim; hopefully in part as a result of improving at the art itself. But on reflection I can see that what I hoped to find in the names was not so much a better technical understanding of the movements, but a way of idealising them, of getting to their essence and encapsulating them.

It’s true that techniques are not definitive; they can be adapted, changed, put to multiple uses. But the mere fact that a technique has a name means that someone saw fit to name it in a particular way and denote from their own perspective what made this technique specific or unique.

In the 2005 doctoral dissertation of Jude Chua Soo Meng the author analyses the correlative theory of naming in the neo-Daoist philosopher wang Bi:

clearly for Wang, the names do in fact correlate to a certain actuality, a certain reality, and is not something which is random or frivolous. In his Laozi Zhilue, he presents explicitly the correlative theory of naming:

“All names arise from forms [phenomenal manifestations, (xing)]; never has a form arisen from a name. Therefore if there is this name, there must be this form, and, if there is this form, there must be its separation [fen] [from all other forms]. If “benevolence” [ren] cannot be called “sagehood” [sheng] or “intelligence” [zhi] called “benevolence,” each must have its own actuality.”

This passage clearly indicates that for Wang Bi names are not conventionally determined, but are determined depending on the shi [actuality/essence] of things, on which basis he can say that one cannot trade a name for another, since names have to accord with their actualities, and are determined by depending on these actualities, and not according to the fancy of the person. Again, names arise from xing, not the other way around, for “the name arises from how it appears to us” So in effect for Wang Bi the shi is manifested through the xing, and the names are determined according to the xing. Thus names ultimately are dependent on the shi through the xing, and the names are dependent immediately on the xing. Hence he can say that if there is this name, there must be this form (xing), since the form is the source of the name. Names come from somewhere objective, and this somewhere is the form.

What this describes is the creative process inherent in naming a thing. We look to the form, the form in turn is a reflection of the actuality or essence of the thing. Hence the name, deemed appropriate to the form yet also being mindful of the essence behind the form, is always in relation with the reality. No one names things arbitrarily, or rather, an arbitrary name is not a true name.

Chua addresses the allocation of arbitrary names in the context of conventions, drawing on Wang’s comments on ‘designation’ as opposed to true naming:

To accommodate this latter class of words which are conventional in order to distinguish it from the determination of names which follow from phenomenal manifestations (xing), Wang Bi calls it “designation” cheng:

“To name [ming] is to determine [ding] objects [bi]. To designate [cheng] is to follow what objects are conventionally called. A name arises from the object, but a designation issues from the subjective [wo].”

Now the designation is said to be subjective because when I designate something, I simply follow a convention and not the objective xing. Compared to naming, it appears that it is up to me (wo) that the designation is what it is; I am not immediately constrained by the objective form in the thing itself, as I would be in naming. After all, in choosing to adopt a conventional designation, I have implicitly chosen to follow convention even if the words fail to name or correspond to the phenomenal xing, if there is one.

In the context of martial arts, as someone who can’t speak Cantonese and doesn’t know the name of a technique, I am instead ‘designating’ a technique through the convention that has evolved in our practice. I can say to a newcomer “We call this move ‘jong’ or ‘kwan’,” but I can’t go beyond that to say that these are the techniques’ names or to explain their meaning in the context of a technique’s form (xing) or actuality (shi).

But the subjectivity of designations cannot be overstated. Subjectivity is not arbitrariness. We should be clear that designation is subjective comparatively, not absolutely. For despite its (comparative) subjectivity, designation for Wang is not divorced from objective reality simpliciter. It is only divorced from the objective reality qua form or shape. Thus he writes, “…designations do not arise without cause.”

Indeed, the designations used in our art are derived from oral repetition and aural impression of the actual names. The designations are far from arbitrary.

Nonetheless, to the original point: I realise now that my fascination with names is a function of idealism more generally. To know the name given to a technique by someone grounded in their practice and study is to have an insight into both the form (xing) and essence (shi) of the technique. It is a somewhat idiosyncratic way of making sense of the art, consolidating and encapsulating it, and translating it into the realm of ideas.

I can do things without an idealist approach, but idealism is my greatest strength, the way that makes most sense to me. While other temperaments are inspired by different aspects of life, the melancholic thrives in a world populated by ideals, and a life lived through them.

Comparative mysticism at Christmas

When I was young I read a lot of books about religion. Around the same time I stopped going to church as soon as my parents would (reluctantly) allow it.

My approach to religion was quite ambitious in its scope: I believed that religions were a mix of essential and non-essential beliefs and practices, that all religions would converge on the essential, and that by comparing them all I could work out what they had in common and hence what lay at the heart of true religion.

The answer was mysticism: the search for and experiential knowledge of ‘ultimate reality’.

All religions had mysticism in common, and so I concluded that mysticism is the heart of religion and therefore the only thing worth pursuing. Everything else: the rituals, the prayers, the meditation, the complex beliefs; these were at best only a means of inducting people into mysticism and at worst they were misguided accretions derived from culture or lower aspects of human psychology.

I spent most of my time at university reading the works of different mystics and the mystical branches of different religions. I even wrote my Honours thesis on the subject, attempting to show how a set of mystical traditions contained the same basic approach to reality: a recognition that human experience is ‘not right’, identification of a transcendent reality or being that is right, and a method of approaching this transcendent reality that requires a shift in attention away from external, worldly affairs and interests, a ‘quieting’ of the mind, and an openness to this fundamentally different kind of being.

My actual thesis was not a good piece of scholarly work by any means. At that stage in my education I was so focused on this personal search for knowledge that I failed to heed or really comprehend the requirements of philosophy as a scholarly discipline. What I wrote may have been interesting to a small group of people, but all it really showed was that I had a particular belief about religion, and I could find selective evidence to support my belief.

Having seen religion in such a light, it is very hard to ‘unsee’ it. It is difficult for me to pretend that the different religions really are strikingly different where it matters. Yet I’m also conscious that my perspective may be tautological: “religious similarities are similar”; or as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism. This is generally believed, and I believed it myself until I read a book giving the reasons for it. The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in things in which all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point in which they are quite obviously different.

Thus, as a case of the first class, he said that both Christ and Buddha were called by the divine voice coming out of the sky, as if you would expect the divine voice to come out of the coal-cellar. Or, again, it was gravely urged that these two Eastern teachers, by a singular coincidence, both had to do with the washing of feet. You might as well say that it was a remarkable coincidence that they both had feet to wash. And the other class of similarities were those which simply were not similar. Thus this reconciler of the two religions draws earnest attention to the fact that at certain religious feasts the robe of the Lama is rent in pieces out of respect, and the remnants highly valued. But this is the reverse of a resemblance, for the garments of Christ were not rent in pieces out of respect, but out of derision; and the remnants were not highly valued except for what they would fetch in the rag shops. It is rather like alluding to the obvious connection between the two ceremonies of the sword: when it taps a man’s shoulder, and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all similar for the man.

These scraps of puerile pedantry would indeed matter little if it were not also true that the alleged philosophical resemblances are also of these two kinds, either proving too much or not proving anything. That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say that it is specially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess. But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.

Identifying mysticism as the common core of religion might be similarly problematic. It may be true that the mystics within various religions invoke strikingly similar themes in their disciplines, but this does not mean that mysticism is necessarily central to religious truth. Mysticism might be just an addendum to the truth of a religion. It might be an interesting yet ultimately non-essential aspect of religious practice. After all, if we assume from the outset that mystical experience is the true heart of religion, then of course we will place less emphasis on the cosmological and teleological content of religious beliefs. For the student of comparative mysticism it doesn’t really matter whether we call our goal the realisation of buddha-nature and nirvana, or the beatific vision and the enjoyment of eternal life in heaven; we already accept the mystics’ claim that the experience of ‘ultimate reality’ is beyond words.

How different are Buddhism and Christianity really? More to the point, how are we to determine what are and aren’t meaningful differences? If the ultimate reality transcends language, then we must accept that the contradictions may only be skin deep. Chesterton’s knowledge of Buddhism was admittedly superficial and mediated apparently by the idiosyncratic interpretations of his contemporaries – Buddhism under the influence of Theosophy and Orientalist popularisers; but one needn’t be well-acquainted with Buddhism to realise that there is a danger in upholding the common ground between two faiths as the only ground worth inhabiting. To interpret everything through the lens of similarity begs the question, diminishes differences before we even get to them.

Nonetheless, the reality of mysticism is compelling, and the ubiquity and consistency of it throughout human religious experience is hard to deny. Conversely, adopting the perspective of comparative mysticism distances us inevitably from the formal, exclusive, and particularist aspects of any one religious system. It doesn’t mean we can’t critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of different religions – and even come to recognise truly unique and revelatory elements within a religion; but it will always be somewhat distant, the observations and understanding of an outsider looking in.

To have this perspective and not promote it as necessarily superior, objectively true, and appropriate for others puts me in an unusual position. There’s not much I can say about it, and since most of my friends and acquaintances are either strongly religious or not religious at all, I tend not to discuss it with anyone. But it is nonetheless a view I have formed, examined, and considered over and again for more than half my life, and to which I keep returning, or should I say: it keeps returning to me. As indistinct as it may be in my own daily life, I have to acknowledge it as a profound influence on all aspects of my view of the world.

As Christmas approaches I can’t help but see it through this lens: the incarnation of that ‘ultimate reality’ within the utterly humble and unspectacular domain of ordinary human existence. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the uniqueness of Christianity, not in as something that denies or refutes the past, but as fulfillment and reaffirmation of what has gone before. Not only God incarnate in its own terms, but a kind of ‘metaphor incarnate’ if we can set aside the misleading implications of such a phrase. To me this is the greatest sense I can make of it; a sense that grounds the metaphysical and ontological mysteries in the lived experience of the individual. An incarnation that mirrors the presence of the ultimate reality in the microcosm of the individual human being.

The uselessness of a martial art

I took this photo about ten years ago at WuYi Shan in Fujian. To me, Kung Fu is kinda like this gate: very old, well-worn, but beautiful, and always promising more on the other side.

My kung fu teacher has always emphasised the dangers of fighting, regardless of one’s skill or confidence in a martial art. Last week he put it more succinctly, noting that the greater our ability and knowledge, the greater our awareness of the danger implicit in any physical confrontation. Paradoxically, the better we are at kung fu or any martial art, the less likely we are to use it.

It reminds me of one of my favourite passages in Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Wenzi:

When you go on the Way, it makes other people unable to wound you no matter how boldly they stab, unable to hit you no matter how skillfully they strike.

Indeed, to be immune to stabbing and striking is still an embarrassment; it is not as good as causing people not to dare to stab you no matter how bold they are, not to dare to strike you no matter how clever they are.

Now not daring does not mean there is no such intention, so it is even better to cause people not to have the intent.

Those who have no such intention do not have a mind that loves to help or harm. That is not as good as causing all the men and women in the world to joyfully wish to love and help you.

If you can do that, then you are a sovereign even if you have no land, you are a chief even if you have no office; everyone will wish for your security and welfare.

It’s an amusing quotation, a kind of reductio ad absurdum, but well worth considering in the context of martial arts, and learning to skilfully attack and defend oneself. Skill in attacking and defending are a part of ‘the Way’ even if we never have to use them.

There’s a difference, after all, between a person who has a skill but doesn’t use it, and one who doesn’t have the skill and hopes he never needs it. Likewise, there’s a difference between the kinds of people who get in a lot of fights, and the kinds of people who devote years of their lives to learning a martial art. Certainly the former are more dangerous than the latter, but mostly in the same way that a drunk-driver is more dangerous than a skilled driver.

These days it is considered vital for martial arts to be ‘reality-based’ or tested somehow in a sporting context or a military or law-enforcement context. But for most of us the reality has nothing to do with these contexts, and even the ‘reality’ of the most common assault scenarios is relative. A few years ago I came across a map of Adelaide that showed the crime rate for specific crimes by suburb. Want to avoid violent assault? The best approach appears to be: a) don’t live in the lower socio-economic areas of the extreme Northern and Southern suburbs, and b) don’t hang around drunk or on drugs in city night-spots in the early hours of the morning.

I don’t know a great deal about the historical context in which the Chinese martial art I learn was first created, but chances are it is still more ‘reality-based’ than the behaviour of the drug and alcohol inspired perpetrators of casual violence in our society. In a city with an excellent state-subsidised medical system and a responsive network of paramedics you don’t really need to worry that starting a drunken fight might get you killed, or worse still, leave you injured, disfigured, and unable to work with a string of dependents beggared and homeless thanks to your irresponsible behaviour.

I think what attracts many of us to martial arts is that they promise something beyond a mere set of skills driven by utility. They may have started out as that, once upon a time, but in the present era they take on a life and a purpose of their own, bringing a great deal of richness to our own lives even if we are never in a position where the art is ‘useful’ in the most practical sense of self-defence.

For me, my martial art encompasses self-defence but goes beyond it, with enough physical, cultural, technical and psychological benefits and fascinations to keep me at it, hopefully until I’m too old to do anything else. This alone is enough to distinguish such a martial art from whatever realities motivate people to start pub-fights, to ‘king hit’ random strangers, or generally stir up trouble wherever they go.

But admittedly there is also a pleasure in knowing that if I or someone I care about is ever attacked I won’t make it easy for the attacker. It is good to know that I have developed the strength and the skill to give as good as I might get, while still knowing the limits of what any level of skill can guarantee.

Funnelly enough

No actual snakes were harmed in the linking of this photograph.

I’ve been meaning to buy a funnel for about two years, and having finally built up enough momentum to actually go to the shop and look for one, it turns out that neither of the two main supermarkets and associated discount department stores stocks them anymore. “We used to have them…”

Is this an Adelaide thing, or a general consumer trend? Has the market been saturated with funnels, or do people simply not decant things anymore?

I’ve gotten pretty good at tipping stuff from one narrow-necked receptacle into another, but I shouldn’t have to. This is not the mark of a civilisation on the rise!