The things I learned on my spiritual quest

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

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

But the most important lesson is entirely the opposite:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Individual differences: temperament

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upbringing

The second domain of individual difference is upbringing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life circumstances

The third domain of difference is our station in life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What your own life can teach you

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

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

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

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

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

Are you living your purpose?

I used to long to find my purpose in life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is purpose?

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

Try to analyse purpose and it loses its mystery.

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

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

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

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

Mysterious power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is purpose right for melancholics?

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

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

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

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

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

The Thinking trap for INFPs (Melancholic-Phlegmatic)

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

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

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

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

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

Being a problem-solver

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

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

Thinking too much

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

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

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

INFPs aren’t Thinkers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more authentic self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth or happiness?

I used to think the purpose of life was to find the truth.

But if I pressed deeper I’d have admitted there was a “why”.

I wanted to find the truth because I believed “the truth shall set you free”. So what I really wanted was not truth but freedom.

I thought that if I understood myself I could control myself, and if I understood reality I would know where and how and why to feel good in it.

The only reason I wanted the truth was because I thought that knowing the truth would help me find happiness.

Why not just pursue happiness directly?

Even as a child I had spent too much time ignoring my own feelings and listening to the advice, admonitions, and demands of others such that by the time I was old enough to think and act independently, I was deeply confused about the right way to live and the right goal to have.

I was able to doubt that “happiness” was even a worthwhile goal.

Is happiness real? Or is it just selfishness and self-delusion? I read a lot of things that added to my doubts about happiness, feelings, and the purpose of life.

I couldn’t doubt that knowing the truth would give me the answers I needed to move forward. Yet I was unwilling to admit to myself that I was really just pursuing happiness under the guise of truth.

I clung to the veneer of objectivity and impartiality that the search for truth conveys, all the time increasingly adamant that truth and happiness were one.

Deciding to believe in happiness

It took many years of depression and anxiety to finally convince me to change, a real change that did not come in the form of further doubting, further questioning, or trying out yet another set of teachings.

I decided to finally accept my own sense of happiness and good feelings as a trustworthy guide.

I finally admitted that my pursuit of “the truth” was only really secondary to my desire for happiness anyway.

I want to be happy, and I want to feel good.

And now it is clearer to me than ever that my search for truth, and my belief that truth would bring happiness, was really about finding an objective justification for being happy in the first place.

I was convinced that we are all meant to be happy, but still felt that I had to justify my particular happiness to others, as though my happiness was an unpopular opinion, needing facts and logic to defend it against scrutiny and attack.

Rediscovering happiness

Lately I’m discovering that there really were things that made me happy when I was younger, but I abandoned them out of embarrassment at my own childishness and impracticality.

It turns out I’ve been dismissing my flashes of inspiration and excitement as daydreams and fantasies. Or I’ve sought to make them seem serious and respectable to myself and others.

Inspired by swords and armour and tales of knights and castles but too ashamed to admit to childish fantasies? Turn it into an academic side-interest in European history and hide all your swords under the bed so no one will ask you about them.

Wish you had magic powers like the characters in your childhood fantasy novels? Turn it into an eccentric curiosity over esoteric spiritual practices: bi-locating saints, flying yogis, and Daoist immortals ascending into heaven in broad daylight.

Take these seeds of inspiration and good feeling and you can do one of two things: plant them and see what grows, or grind them into a thin and unappetising paste.

There’s a reason why INFPs are sometimes labelled “Dreamers“. Our happiness lies in bringing our dreams into reality.

Introverted Sanguines and Extroverted Phlegmatics: the confusing middle-ground

This piece will get technical, so skip it if you aren’t interested in the minutiae of MBTI and temperament theory.

I’m mindful that when I pick people’s temperament I’m doing so in a subjective way based on my past experiences and the feel I have for people, in addition to more objective elements from a theoretical context.

Cholerics just feel hard and sharp to me. I can compare the feel of each new person to past examples I’ve collected (gotta catch em all!). I can identify patterns and key markers, and I can look at how they behave interpersonally and their overall direction in life.

Ambitious? High-energy? Disagreeable? Driven? The evidence will be there, and if it’s not, there’ll be a reason why it’s not.

I think this dual subjective/objective approach is good because it doesn’t rely entirely on how I feel about a person, but nor does it rely on disconnected data points. It has the strengths of both. It certainly has weaknesses too, but there’s no perfect alternative.

Any theory or system will have limitations. The only truly deadly limitation is to be oblivious to those limitations.

People who are hard to pick

I’ve encountered a number of people whose temperament is hard to pick.

The extreme cases are always the easiest: extreme cholerics, melancholics, sanguines and phlegmatics tend to be living caricatures of their type.

Cholerics in general are easiest to pick because of their disagreeableness and ambition or high self-regard.

Melancholics are probably the next easiest, though their tendency to try to fit in socially sometimes masks their melancholic aspect. Neuroticism is usually the key distinguishing feature of melancholics.

But the truly hard cases are the non-extreme versions of sanguine and phlegmatic temperament.

Sanguines are by nature more extroverted and phlegmatics are more introverted; the hard cases are therefore introverted sanguines and extroverted phlegmatics.

Let’s get technical

In MBTI terms, cholerics are NT, melancholics NF, sanguines Se, and phlegmatics Si.

Note that cholerics and melancholics are defined by the combination of intuition (N) and Thinking or Feeling respectively, whereas sanguines and phlegmatics are defined by the orientation of their Sensing function – sanguines have extroverted Sensing and phlegmatics have introverted Sensing.

What that means is that while cholerics are always intuitive and Thinking, sanguines and phlegmatics can be Sensing and Thinking or Sensing and Feeling.

The functional stack

The standard MBTI labels like INFP immediately tell us a person’s top two functions, their dominant and auxiliary.

But in practice we all use four functions consciously, though with decreasing levels of ability and effort.

The label INFP tells us that this person has a dominant of Fi, and auxiliary of Ne. This means they must have a tertiary of Si and an inferior of Te.

In theory, at various stages of life and especially under pressure, people will resort to their tertiary and inferior functions.

So although an INFP is a melancholic (NF), under pressure they will draw more heavily on Si and Te as a complementary pair of functions.

Si and Te working together would resemble an STJ type… a phlegmatic, because of the introverted Sensing function.

We can therefore say that all NFPs have a secondary temperament of STJ, hence they are melancholic-phlegmatic.

Secondary temperament

We can extrapolate these tertiary and inferior pairs for all the MBTI types and thereby work out the “secondary temperaments”:

NTP->SFJ = Choleric-phlegmatic

NTJ->SFP = Choleric-sanguine

NFP->STJ = Melancholic-phlegmatic

NFJ->STP = Melancholic-sanguine

STP->NFJ = Sanguine-melancholic

SFP->NTJ = Sanguine-choleric

STJ->NFP = Phlegmatic-melancholic

SFJ->NTP = Phlegmatic-choleric

Bear in mind that these are just general rules of how the functions work together. Individuals might have developed or emphasised different combinations of functions.

For example, I’m an INFP, but due to peculiarities of my early life I learned to develop my Te and sometimes use it in conjunction with Ne while suppressing Fi.

In temperament terms I’m still clearly a Melancholic-phlegmatic, but the Ne-Te combination resembles a minor choleric influence that manifests as an internal pressure to get things done and achieve something.

Incidentally, combining two extroverted or two introverted functions like Ne-Te is considered unhealthy and unsustainable.

Introverted Sanguines

An ISTP friend once referred to himself as a “chameleon”, because he felt he could adapt his personality to changing circumstances with relative ease, though he noted that some adaptations were more taxing than others.

This same friend was difficult to type in temperament terms, as he appeared to lack extremes of any temperament.

Any STP should have NFJ as secondary temperament: Sanguine-melancholic.

But looking at the functional stack of an ISTP in particular, something unusual happens:

Ti – Se – Ni – Fe

The Se is what makes someone sanguine, but in an auxiliary position the Se is subordinate to the dominant Ti, and so its effect is muted.

Initially I would have been content to describe an ISTP as a Sanguine-melancholic. But the melancholic aspect is not as pronounced, and it can be confused by the strong influence of dominant Ti.

If we go only by the dominant function, then the ISTP shares Ti with the INTP – a choleric-phlegmatic – but without the Ne (extroverted intuition) that gives full flight to the INTP’s Ti.

The same pattern applies to ISFPs.

They ought to be simply sanguine-cholerics, since they have an NT combo in their tertiary/inferior positions.

But an ISFP has dominant Fi, a function that is shared by INFPs like me.

A sanguine-choleric ought to be the exact opposite of a melancholic-phlegmatic, yet I can relate to their Fi function.

Extroverted Phlegmatics

The same pattern applies to ESxJs, because the overall extroversion of the E-types shifts Si into an auxiliary rather than dominant position.

ESFJs ought to be phlegmatic-choleric, and they share dominant Fe with ENFJs who are melancholic-sanguine.

ESTJs ought to be phlegmatic-melancholic, but they share dominant Te with ENTJs who are choleric-sanguine.

A more balanced temperament?

What this all suggests to me is that the introverted sanguines and extroverted phlegmatics are the most balanced of the temperaments. Lacking strong intuition they are missing the edge or “enduring impressions” that both cholerics and melancholics possess, and which can be understood as a kind of unconscious processing of the world around us.

Sanguines live more in the present moment of sensory stimulation while phlegmatics live more in the past of memory and experience. Cholerics and melancholics live more in the abstract world created by the unconscious processing of their intuition.

But for introverted sanguines and extroverted phlegmatics these sensory orientations are subordinate to their dominant judging functions.

On reading omens part 2

I used to read the Yi Jing a lot, the Chinese Classic of Change.

I often received a result that included words like “It furthers one to have somewhere to go” and “It furthers one to see the great man”.

I baulked at these lines, not because I disagreed with them but because I had nowhere to go, and no idea who “the great man” might be.

Somewhere to go

Throughout my life I’ve often had a yearning to go somewhere, with the sense that once I got there I would find respite and a sense of identity.

But where was this place? All I had was a feeling.

Knowing the INFP temperament, I can see that this Feeling is the place I was yearning for. Not a physical location, but a feeling-place presented to my imagination as a physical location that I had to find.

It was a message from my innermost being, guiding me not to a physical place but to a Feeling where I would find rest and strength.

There was no mystical cave or temple monastery to go to in search of wisdom.

Or maybe there was, but I had already read so many stories of people who travelled to some mysterious destination only to find that what they were looking for was within them all along.

Without going out of your door you can know all things on earth, without looking out of your window you can know the ways of heaven. The farther one travels the less one knows.

– DaoDeJing

Find the feeling

The work I’ve done this past year with the Abraham-Hicks material has shown me that everything begins with the feeling.

It was not fruitless to have only the feeling of the mysterious place I sought; but it was a mistake to discount and suppress the feeling just because I could not find an obvious physical correlation to it.

The feeling itself was the place I needed to find and take comfort in and from.

This is especially true for Melancholic-Phlegmatics (INFP/ENFP) because our yearning and search for ideals means that we don’t always appreciate or move toward real instances of what we desire.

We might look around and see nothing that matches our desire and our ideal, so we tear down the ideal as too vague or too unrealistic or simply unhelpful.

But feeling better is the most helpful thing in the world. Feeling better is the reason why we pursue our ideals in the first place.

It’s not so much that achieving the ideal will make us feel good, but that feeling good is aligned with these particular ideals and desires peculiar to us as individuals.

Re-reading the Yi

Without resistance the idea of having “somewhere to go” elicits a feeling that is very uplifting. In this sense it matches the spirit of “seek and ye shall find”.

Some people know exactly what they want. But for others it’s better to know how we want to feel, and then let feeling be the filter and the guide that brings us to what we desire.

Re-reading the Yi Jing in this light, in a strictly personal, private interpretation, the meaning is much clearer than before because it is unconstrained by worries about objectivity, historicity, and consistency with how others might have read it or are reading it now.

In the reading of omens none of that matters.

Why explaining myself makes my ankle hurt

I see meaning and significance in many places.

Like an Augur – someone who could read omens in the flight of birds and other seemingly random occurrences.

Recently I went to see a physiotherapist about chronic stiffness and discomfort in my shoulders and neck, and he immediately traced it my right hip having rotated forward.

I saw it as signifying how I’ve been forever trying (unsuccessfully) to put forward a more practical, worldly, and conscientious part of me in an almost defensive posture that asserts the dominant side of my body.

Not long after seeing the physio I had a recurrence of inflammation in my left ankle, an old ache that leaves the joint feeling unstable and sore.

Again, it’s not that I go searching for an interpretation. I just immediately saw it as connected to my timidity about my own personal beliefs.

In fact both the hip and the ankle correspond to an issue I’ve raised before: the pressure for a Melancholic/INFP to conform to objective, shared reasoning and logic.

In MBTI terms it’s the INFP struggle with inferior extroverted Thinking (Te).

The INFP dominant function of introverted Feeling (Fi) is intrinsically subjective and difficult to describe or communicate, let alone explain or justify.

Other people (even other INFPs) tend not to understand our Fi approach and request or demand explanations or justifications for our beliefs and choices.

Taken to an extreme, an INFP can end up utilising inferior Te to try to “translate” nebulous yet powerful Fi judgements into more commonly accepted language and contexts.

This effort to translate is – like an artist or a comedian having to constantly explain their art or jokes – taxing, demoralising, and at odds with our dominant mode of being.

How can you justify yourself?

The pain in my ankle signifies my hesitance at putting forward my own personal beliefs and judgements.  I’m much more comfortable asserting broad generalities and carefully weighed observations.

But I can’t stand upon these measured justifications and explanations because they aren’t really a part of me. Like my hip, I’ve tried to push them further than they are meant to go.

The sad thing is that in conversation with others I’m so preoccupied by the effort to frame and contextualise my own beliefs that I end up losing sight of what those beliefs are.

I know my own thoughts deep down, but they’re unpracticed and wordless after years of trying to explain myself in other people’s terms.

When I talk to others I find myself trying to work out where they stand and what they believe, as if I can then build a bridge from their world to mine.

But what if that isn’t possible? What if people aren’t interested or able to see where I’m coming from, no matter how straightforward and simple I draw the map?

And at the heart of it all is not a genuine desire for others to understand me, but a fear of their judgement if they misunderstand me.

That’s why I have a pain in my ankle, because I’m afraid to put my weight on my own personal, private, unerring belief. I’m afraid to stand on it, because of how others might judge me if I drop the defense of framing and contextualising, justifying and explaining myself.

But there’s a simple remedy to this ailment.

I don’t need to justify or explain my beliefs to anyone. I simply don’t need to justify or explain my beliefs to anyone.

My beliefs do not need to be explicable or justifiable. I do not need to internally audit my thoughts and feelings in preparation for giving account.

After all, most people don’t want justifications or explanations beyond the most basic. No one but bullies demand justifications, and even their demands are more about power than about justification per se.

The genuinely curious ask questions and try to understand.

After all, justification implies permission or approval, and nobody needs permission or approval for their own beliefs.

Other people might criticise you or mock you if they don’t like your beliefs, but that’s not really about beliefs, but about how we interact with others.

If I want my ankle to stop hurting, I need to stop speaking in impersonal, cautious generalities. I am not, after all, an objective and impartial person. I’m not meant to be, and no one is.

What I desire and appreciate is the freedom to not explain myself or justify myself in this way; the freedom to not reach for the most justifiable or relevant aspects of my experience, and stop hiding behind the most plausible words I can conjure.

I don’t want to be at pains to cast myself in a sympathetic light anymore, always translating my thoughts into what I think other people will find easier to relate to.

NB: Yes, I realise this reads like an explanation of why I don’t want to explain myself, but…I don’t have to justify this!

Pride and humility for melancholics

It’s telling that in Conrad Hock’s spiritual advice for the four temperaments, he extols melancholics to cultivate faith in providence, whereas humility he prescribes for cholerics:

The choleric must combat his pride and anger con­tinually. Pride is the misfortune of the choleric, humility his only salvation. Therefore he should make it a point of his particular examination of conscience for years.

The choleric must humiliate himself voluntarily in confession, before his superiors, and even before others.

Ask God for humiliations and accept them, when inflicted, magnanimously. For a choleric it is better to permit others to humiliate him, than to humiliate himself.

Given how dominant cholerics are, perhaps this explains why pride and humility are such central themes of religious teaching and cultivation?

Ever since Cain slew Abel, people have been muttering “f***ing cholerics!” under their breath. There’s a reason why choleric issues get so much attention.

Rethinking spiritual priorities

I’ve devoted a lot of time to unpacking the spiritual theme of pride, because it holds such significance in religious traditions.

In theory we all suffer from pride. Augustine identified it as the root of all sin, and Cassian poetically captured the devil’s fall from heaven as the fault of pride, mistaking his own glory for something self-created rather than the gift of his creator.

But there’s something very melancholic about fixating on the wrong spiritual diagnosis and running with it.

And while everyone is susceptible to pride in theory, and while pride itself can legitimately be defined in very broad terms, still it doesn’t mean that humility is the correct spiritual antidote for a melancholic.

Humility or pessimism?

I think I was drawn to the idea of humility, because in its theological context it means “seeing one’s true dependence on God”. For a melancholic, this can appear very attractive because we are prone to pessimism and despair anyway.

When your ideals have been systematically crushed, it’s tempting to embrace “humility” as a form of consolation, making a virtue out of giving up.

But puncturing pride just isn’t the same priority for melancholics as it is for cholerics.

We melancholics are supposed to instead have faith in providence, telling ourselves “things are not as bad as they seem”. And the underlying logic of providence is, to a melancholic, almost distressingly positive:

God loves you, and God is in control of everything. The creative power behind all existence wants you to be happy. Your entire experience is a work of love aimed specifically at you.

So as the beatitudes remind us: chill the **** out!

Mistaking happiness for pride

If you were to take seriously God’s love and providence, it might bring you dangerously close to feeling good about life.

You might even feel a strange inner glow that could, if you’re not careful, be mistaken for pride.

We think of pride as being “full of oneself”, and “self-satisfied”. So as not to take any chances, we therefore err on the side of being empty of any and all positive feeling about ourselves.

But to avoid confusion, I suggest we instead ignore the issue of pride completely. Keep it simple: Providence + Love => Happiness

If God cares about our happiness, isn’t it okay for us to care about our happiness too?

If God loves us, isn’t it okay to love ourselves as well?

This is the point where all the pride talk would normally strike us down.

Love yourself? Ha! What an ego! Full of God’s love? I can tell you’re full of something. You think you’re special? Such arrogance…you’re supposed to hate your life in this world, remember?

But assuming we’re all melancholics here, we need to accept we are not the intended audience for that.

Pride talk aimed at cholerics is like trying to protect your home from a raging bushfire.

Pride talk aimed at melancholics is like tipping a bucket of cold water on the warm embers that might have stopped you freezing to death in your sleep.

Isn’t it okay to be happy?

We’re told that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and I’ve always interpreted it one way only: that we should all put ourselves last, and if we are sincere then our sincere humility will be rewarded in the next life.

But in the context of pride and temperament I think it should be taken both ways: if you are first, you should put yourself last. If you are last you should put yourself first.

“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low.”

Don’t just topple the mountains, but raise the valleys too. If you are proud you should learn humility, but if you are a miserable unhappy melancholic you should at least consider that feeling good and putting yourself first is not a sin after all.

The proof of this is that real humility will bring greater happiness to a choleric. Their pride does not bring them happiness, it brings them frustration and vexation and anger.

We might look at egregiously arrogant cholerics who project success and happiness, but we know that their arrogance is hungry and grasping.

What more proof do we need that the genuine feelings of love, self-acceptance, and self-respect in us are not pride at all, but the fulfillment and grace of our own melancholic journey?

Is it time to consider the lily?

My latest piece at MercatorNet is part 2 of my parenting tips from a low-energy father. Therein I advise we draw on providence and find ways to be happy, for the benefit of ourselves and our children:

Parenting doesn’t end at getting things done. Parents aren’t machines. We model not only our behaviours and skills to our children, but our entire worldview and the moods and personality traits that accompany it.

We can, in a sense, “do everything right” but still inhabit a joyless existence, and our children are powerfully susceptible to the long-term influence of our attitude to life.

That’s why good communication is not enough, and why – for my own sake, and for the sake of my children – I set out learning how to change how I feel.

https://www.mercatornet.com/family_edge/view/is-it-time-to-consider-the-lily/21652

Parenting advice from a low-energy father

In my latest at article at MercatorNet I share the merits of assertive communication in raising kids:

instead of using aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviours to coerce others into doing what you want, you can learn to literally assert your needs and wants, thoughts and feelings to others, with the implication that merely communicating your own inner world is the first and most important step in interacting with others.

In other words, relationships are ideally not power struggles of passive or outright coercion, manipulation and resentment. How novel!

Learning to communicate well is important because other people don’t necessarily understand what we want, think, or feel (even though it’s obvious, right?), and many of us are blinded to good communication by an expectation of conflict in our relationships.

But in an ideal world we could all learn to be open and clear about what we want, think, and feel, and let others decide how they think, feel, and want in response to that.

https://www.mercatornet.com/family_edge/view/3-parenting-tips-from-a-low-energy-father/21616