Letting go 09: when spiritual struggle is an obstacle

My fascination with solving problems and searching for deep and meaningful answers has been the central theme of my life for more than twenty years.

This is my personal form of assertion: an attempt to take control of my life after concluding that life itself could not be trusted to bring me happiness.

I embraced this struggle via forms of mysticism that encouraged my negative view of life. With a deeply melancholic perspective I believed there was nothing worth striving for, nothing worth attaining, nothing that could bring lasting happiness in this lifetime.

Except to transcend it all; to find a state of being the mystics spoke of, where reality was transformed as the individual became united with the ultimate reality, the ground of all being.

Spiritual cynicism

You know the Socratic injunction that “wisest is he who knows his wisdom is worth nothing”? That’s supposed to be an insight earned through experience, not something to memorise and move on. It’s not wise to be a kid who parrots nuggets of philosophical wisdom.

But that was me. I took onboard a slew of sayings and aphorisms. I read the books they came from. I immersed myself in spiritual texts and tried to see the world through the eyes of these enlightened teachers, saints, and sages.

But this whole effort was an epic work of assertion. I was no different from a kid who thinks he can be president or a kid who wants to be a billionaire.

The only difference is that I thought spiritual enlightenment was going to be more powerful, more desirable, and more enduring than those “worldly” aims.

My struggle resembled a strange, entirely introspective version of the kind of person who chases after “get rich quick” schemes. Get enlightened quick, I guess.

But I never found myself willing to practice or pick a pathway or a discipline. I just wanted to work it all out myself using all the available resources.

And I’m not entirely wrong

And yeah, I’m not entirely wrong. I’ve seen in other areas of life like Kung Fu a similar struggle to master or attain an answer to my questions.

The answer eventually came. I just made it more of a struggle than it needed to be. A lot more.

Desperation doesn’t yield results. If we want answers we have to be in the right mode to receive them.

My spiritual quest is therefore two things. It’s an actual path of learning, experience, and progress; and it’s a massive assertion of control as well. It’s my attempt to force reality to comply with my wishes. It’s a hammer I use to feel like I’m shaping my life the way I want it to be.

That second part just doesn’t work at all.

And it arises out of fear. It’s an action-pathway I took to assuage feelings of misalignment, hopelessness and powerlessness. It’s something I crafted to give me a sense of being more than the dismal world I saw around me, to be more than the disappointing self I seemed to be.

Reconciliation

I can give up the spiritual struggle, and profound thoughts and wisdom will probably still appeal to me.

I’ll probably still be someone who cares about meaning and purpose and existence.

What I want to stop doing is using my spiritual search as the answer to negative feelings of fear and insecurity. Because it isn’t an answer, just a course of action, an assertion of control that hinges on an outcome.

Those negative feelings need to be acknowledged and faced on their own terms, not silenced and avoided with vague promises of enlightenment and transformation.

Owning up to feelings of envy and jealousy, inferiority and shame, insecurity and fear can be really tough. But letting them fester in the background doesn’t nullify them either.

And with the Abraham-Hicks teachings I’ve learned that these feelings aren’t bad: they’re guidance showing me that my thoughts, my vibration, is out of alignment with God/inner being.

That’s actually a good thing. Our negative feelings mean we’re looking at things in the wrong way.

In the past two and a half years I’ve practiced many tools for changing how I feel. I didn’t have these tools when I was younger. It makes sense that I would seize on the ideal of enlightenment to try to overcome those bad feelings.

But now I have the strength and the skills to face them directly and soothe them. I can accomplish real vibrational change instead of looking for escape.

Seeking solace and fulfilment

When I used to practice detachment I would run into a problem of feeling bored and yearning for something more, yet I couldn’t think of anything in the world to satisfy that desire.

This is perhaps where my melancholic temperament shapes my experience, because melancholics are excited by ideals and ideals are hard to locate in physical reality.

…aren’t they?

Rethinking idealism

There’s no question that I am more excited by things like spiritual teachings and principles than material possessions and experiences.

Yet this dichotomy is informed by my own past belief that reality was dull and miserable. If what I’m longing for is the fulfilment of my exciting ideals, then naturally it’s frustrating and disappointing to believe reality can never rise to meet those ideals.

But the whole point is that manifestations are only a reflection of thought, and feeling guides us as to the alignment of our thoughts with God/inner being.

Hence quashing my ideals because I couldn’t see or even imagine them manifesting in my reality is, in A-H terms, like digging up the seedlings you just planted because they haven’t borne fruit yet.

Don’t go looking outside

My old frustration was guidance telling me my thoughts were off. And boy were they off! I was using my reality as the measure of my ideals, my excitement, my good feelings. I was shutting down my own enthusiasm because I didn’t know what to do with it!

What I can do instead is accept that my manifestation is a reflection of my alignment, and the profoundly good feelings I have right now are telling me I am aligned with God/inner being.

It feels good to know this now. It feels good to know and to see that manifested reality is a perfect match to what I’m feeling right now. It is wonderful to know at last that I don’t have to go searching for something to justify, anchor, or explain this inner peace and satisfaction and ease.

Temperament Project 05: Why Does Temperament Matter?

Everyone is unique, but at the same time we are all the same.

Between those not-very-useful extremes, personality theories can help us group people together according to various traits.

Temperament is one way of grouping people. It’s useful because it reflects salient features of personality that we can observe in everyday life.

Without a system like the four temperaments we have to treat each individual as “same but different” to an unknown degree.

Once you’ve mastered the basics of temperament you can quickly and easily identify what drives a person and hence how they are likely to act and interact.

Threat analysis

We can tell that some people are “pushy” because they push us. It’s self-evident.

But have you ever been caught by surprise when someone who never pushed before, someone you thought you knew well, suddenly turns around and starts pushing hard?

If you don’t understand the temperaments you might take friendliness and shared interests at face value and think “this person is like me, we’re on the same page” and then be totally flummoxed when they do or say something that you would never do or say.

The fact is that people of different temperaments can have aligned interests or values in one aspect of life, but be completely different and at odds in every other way.

Melancholic vs Choleric

I’ve had my own share of experiences where I mistook friendship and shared values and interests to mean a shared understanding and similar personality.

But as a melancholic my interests and values always tended towards idealism while my choleric friends were always interested in ambition and standing.

As a melancholic my ideal of friendship is a deep personal connection with another individual. But for some cholerics friendship is more about having an entourage of useful and affirming people behind them.

As a melancholic my ideal of leadership is taking responsibility and making decisions in the best interests of the group. But for some cholerics that ideal is tempered by the perks and power of leadership for its own sake.

A choleric who seeks leadership does so because it’s a desirable position for him to hold. A melancholic who reluctantly takes leadership does it because no one else is willing, able, or competent enough.

Mindful interactions

These days I can pick people’s temperaments almost immediately. The more extreme they are, the easier to pick. And conversely the harder they are to pick, the more balanced and easy to get along with they are.

When I pick someone as choleric it means I know not to take offence if they say or do something that seems rude or arrogant from my point of view.

It means I don’t expect them to make idealistic decisions, so I’m not surprised when they do things that I would regard as impossibly cynical or pragmatic.

I’m aware that with some cholerics I’m being quickly and quietly assessed for my usefulness to them, and I make a point of not being useful 😅

But I also respect cholerics who have genuine skill, knowledge and expertise, and I have even greater respect for those who work against their ingrained pride and temper themselves.

I still have several choleric friends, and knowing them has deepened my appreciation for the variations within that temperament, while keeping in mind the basic nature of cholerics generally has helped me understand these individuals and avoid the conflicts that arise when I assume other people think like me.

Temperament Project 04: Excitability and Duration of Impression

We’ve mostly forgotten how to think like our ancestors, which is why concepts like “heat and moisture” don’t make immediate sense to us.

Jakob Henle

But alongside modern medicine, interest in the four temperaments persisted. That’s how we end up with interesting cases like the 19th Century German-Jewish anatomist Jakob Henle, for whom the Loop of Henle in the kidney is named (and whose marriage to a maid and seamstress was the inspiration for Pygmalion, and thence My Fair Lady).

Henle was at the forefront of cell physiology using microscopes, became a proponent of the then-unpopular contagion theory of infection, and developed the four basic categories of tissue still used today.

Henle also wrote on temperament, and sought to explain the widely accepted four types in more up-to-date biological terms, specifically in terms of the nervous system.

Excitation

When nerve cells receive a stimulus they become excited. Excitation in this sense simply means activity.

Henle believed that a person’s temperament was a reflection of the tonus of their nervous system: how easily excited the cells are, and how long they remain active or excited after the stimulus is removed.

Cholerics are excitable and form enduring impressions. This means they react strongly and quickly to stimuli, and their reaction lasts for a long time.

Sanguines are also excitable, but their impressions are comparatively short-lived, leaving them susceptible to distraction. They react strongly and quickly to one thing after another.

Melancholics are not very excitable. Our reaction to stimuli is comparatively slow and weak, but like the choleric our reactions last a long time.

Phlegmatics are not easily excited either, but unlike the melancholic their impressions are short-lived.

Worldview

Each temperament’s way of seeing the world can be viewed as an outcome of these characteristics.

Why are cholerics “ambitious”? Because they have strong quick reactions to stimuli and these reactions last a long time. What we mean by ambition is strong desire that endures.

Why do sanguines like nice things and good experiences? Because they too react strongly and quickly to stimuli, but because their reactions are brief they are constantly drawn to new and exciting things.

Why are melancholics “idealists”? Because we aren’t excited enough by stimuli, so we are drawn to ideas that magnify the significance of everyday life. A new car doesn’t excite us much. But a new electric car is enhanced by ideals like environmentalism, game-changing technological advancement and breaking of tired conventions. Now that’s exciting! (And I don’t even own one).

Why are phlegmatics easy-going and rule-abiding? Because they have slow, weak reactions like the melancholic, but these reactions are brief like the sanguine. They aren’t strongly excited by anything, and they don’t dwell on things either. Following the rules is just the obvious thing to do, especially if it helps everyone get along and avoid conflict.

Temperament Project 03: Heat and Moisture

While it’s nice to have observations like “cholerics are ambitious and melancholics are idealistic”, any attempt to truly understand human personality won’t be satisfied until it can reduce these kinds of descriptions to their most basic form.

Ambition and idealism are pretty complicated social, psychological, and behavioural phenomena. You can say that someone is born with ambition, but there’s no substance called “ambition” that we can study and measure.

I’m a cold, dry man

The Greeks had their own complex and interwoven theory on how these things worked.

The four elements and the four humours in the body were each described in terms of heat and moisture, and these applied directly to the four temperaments.

Fire/choleric is hot and dry.

Air/sanguine is hot and moist.

Earth/melancholic is cold and dry.

Water/phlegmatic is cold and moist.

These descriptions can be taken almost at face value if you understand that heat is life, movement, passion and activity, and moisture is pliable, malleable, soft and yielding.

Sanguines are hot because they are passionate, warm, active, energetic and lively. They are moist because they adapt easily, let go of conflicts and problems quickly, and are pretty much social glue holding everyone together.

Phlegmatics are cold because they are (comparatively) slow, quiet, less expressive and have lots of inertia. But they are still moist like the sanguine because they easily let go of things and quite happily adapt or go along with everyone, so long as no rules are being broken.

Neither sanguines nor phlegmatics have “hard edges” and both are relatively yielding under pressure. Like wet clay they can be reshaped without breaking, though both have their sticking points: injustice for the sanguine and rule-breaking for the phlegmatic.

Dry, hard, and brittle

Cholerics and melancholics are both dry, which means they are stiff rather than pliable, do not adapt easily, and like clay that has dried out, tend to hold their shape against other pressures or forces.

The difference is that the choleric is hot – so their dryness is given direction by this more passionate, active, lively, and energetic aspect. Like the sanguine a choleric has a certain zest for life, but where the sanguine energy is more spontaneous and malleable, in the choleric it takes on a hardness and longevity that we identify as “ambition” or “drive”.

The melancholic is cold, and that gives our dryness a passivity, quietness, and almost a heaviness of inertia. Both melancholics and cholerics take on a shape, like hardened clay, but the cholerics’ heat gives them the energy to move and strive, while the melancholic coldness leaves us reluctant to strive and in danger of sinking to the lowest point.

In extreme cases melancholics are described as being close to death, since the Greeks observed that a dead body loses its heat and becomes stiff. At the other extreme, sanguines are the most full of life thanks to their heat and moisture.

Four ways of living

These qualities of heat and moisture aren’t biologically sound in our current paradigm, so we can’t say that they “explain” the four temperaments’ different ways of living.

But they do expand on it, and show how the ways of living might be reducible to more basic factors.

Cholerics are ambitious because their dryness gives lasting shape to their hot, passionate, and energetic nature.

Sanguines are moist and so despite having the same kind of heat as the choleric, they don’t form lasting plans or ambitions but are instead continually shaped by their environment. Their hot passions and liveliness draws them to good experiences and nice objects, giving them the air of a bon vivant.

Melancholic dryness makes us hard and unyielding, but in the absence of hot passions and energy we lack ambitions. Instead we are left reflecting on our own circumstances and nature, including our lack of malleability and adaptability. This reflection and passivity draws us to ideals and meaning that promise far greater rewards and satisfaction.

Finally, phlegmatic coldness and malleability leaves this temperament similarly passive, but, unlike the melancholic, able to adapt and go with the flow. In their coldness they look for rules to follow rather than the strength of their own desire like the hot temperaments of sanguine and choleric.

Practical application

I’ll have more to say on this later, but for now consider your own temperament and those of your friends, family, and acquaintances.

Are they “hot” or “cold”? Passionate and energetic like the sanguine and choleric, or passive and quiet like the melancholic and phlegmatic?

Are they “moist” or “dry”? To me this comes across more as a feeling of softness or hardness to the personality.

There are many other ways of explaining or describing these four temperaments, but this is the original. As we look at a few more, we will develop a more rounded picture of each temperament and hopefully understand ourselves and others much better!

Temperament Project 02: the Four Temperaments at a Glance

We have to start somewhere so let’s begin with a brief depiction of each of the four temperaments.

Cholerics see the world in terms of ambition, accomplishment, and standing. They have high self-esteem and naturally put themselves forward. They are proud, and angry when thwarted. They like to compete, love to win, and will gravitate toward success and leadership.

Sanguines are drawn to nice things and good experiences. They love having fun, are quite easy-going, and while they can quickly become angry, especially at perceived injustices, they just as quickly let go of their anger too. Sanguines tend to be more easily bored and distracted.

Melancholics are drawn to meaning and ideals. They are reflective and often hesitant to act, inclined to pessimism and dwelling on their own failures and shortcomings. Melancholics love authenticity and hate inauthentic situations and people, yet they struggle to authentically express themselves and are prone to try to fit in with other temperaments.

Phlegmatics are generally very placid and easy-going. They are not strongly excited by anything, but hate conflict and being put on the spot. They love to follow the rules and will happily do their own thing or go along with the crowd.

More to come

There’s a lot more to come, but this should serve as a basis. Consider yourself and the people you know. Are they:

Ambitious and strong-willed (choleric)

Idealistic and cautious (melancholic)

Fun loving and easily distracted (sanguine)

Placid and rule-abiding (phlegmatic)

These four characterisations aren’t perfect, but we will refine them and expand on them in future posts.

Inspired Feeling for INFP-Melancholics

When an INFP’s introverted Feeling function (Fi) is working well it integrates the auxiliary Ne, tertiary Si and inferior Te perfectly.

When Fi isn’t working the other functions come into play without balance or support and we end up grasping for genius ideas (Ne), trying to remember what worked before (Si), or looking for some kind of irrefutable logic to apply (Te).

How to use Fi (and why we don’t)

Fi at its most powerful is like an actor becoming a role he loves and knows inside and out.

Fi is knowing how things are supposed to feel and it draws on the other three functions to inform it.

Using Fi in this way is powerful but can feel a little fake. Being able to slip in and out of different roles or characters with ease seems too easy or strange, and we can feel insecure about our authentic self.

For example, when I learned to sing in a choir I simply imitated the kind of voice I was “supposed” to have. It took some confidence, and giving myself permission to do it. From my point of view I wasn’t singing with my voice, just imitating the inspired ideal of voices.

But for me that’s what singing is.

Singing in a small church choir was a pretty low-stakes game, and that’s why I could give myself permission to “pretend” to be a singer.

In other areas of life when it seems like the stakes are higher INFPs risk doubting and distrusting their Fi ability.

For example, in martial arts we’re warned against being someone who looks the part but has no true skill or power.

An INFP can take this to heart and reject the Fi approach, searching instead for a more authentic or objective basis of skill.

Building trust in Fi

I think without practice our Fi abilities fall into two categories. There are low-stakes contexts where we use Fi easily, and for that reason don’t prize it.

Then there are higher-stakes contexts where we distrust Fi because it feels unreal. And because we distrust it, we don’t practice it or explore it. It remains dormant or dislocated.

I think the answer is to learn to engage Fi and remain inspired by it even while practicing and improving our skills.

Imagine you’re learning to play the violin. You already have a Fi image of what it looks like, the feel of a highly skilled violinist.

But you don’t have the basic skills yet, and the gap between your skill level and the Fi image of playing like a concertmaster or world-renowned soloist is….embarrassing.

So instead of drawing on that feeling, you think “I’ll practice until I’m good enough and then I’ll start acting like it”.

But it won’t work that way because you’re rejecting your most powerful function out of embarrassment and fear. The fear of “who do you think you are?”

Practice with Feeling

The solution is to do both. Stand inside your Fi image of the highest skill and accomplishment, and bring that to your practice, no matter how basic or beginner-level it is.

Use the Fi to keep you inspired and engaged, facing toward your goal. And instead of looking like a fool or coming across as pretentious, you will bring to your practice the focus and sincerity of the very mastery you desire.

When a master of one instrument comes to learn another they don’t blush and cringe at their mistakes. They don’t cower and slouch like they have no idea what they are doing.

They bring the full bearing of their existing mastery into the practice, with the openness and patience of one who knows they have much to learn.

Anything less is self-sabotage.

Feel good all day 2

The garden where I sometimes sit to write.

I love having this extreme goal, this ideal of feeling good all day.

Melancholics are idealists: it’s ideals and meaning that excite us.

Feeling good bit by bit gradually doesn’t excite me. I love all or nothing ideals, even though I know they usually contribute to gradual progress.

An outside observer might say I’ve made gradual changes over time, but the thought of gradual change just doesn’t inspire me enough to commit to it!

I want the excitement of a great ideal and an enormous goal and an absolute accomplishment to move me.

“Feel good all day” is not only all of that, it’s also vague or general enough to keep my creativity flowing without fixating on precise outcomes.

Count Your Blessings Day 8

My little girl has now soothed herself to sleep three nights in a row plus two day time naps!

I cannot fully express how much relief this brings me!

Never again will I have to rock and bounce her til she falls asleep!

Never again will I fight exhaustion to get her to stop crying!

This is so amazing. This is a miracle! And I owe it all to changing my focus from the burden of “getting her to sleep” to the love and appreciation of “helping her self-soothe to sleep”.

This is life-changing. When I look back on this Happiness series, I look forward to appreciating all over again how a year of sleep-deprivation and struggle so easily gave way to our 1yo learning to fall asleep all by herself.

And all it took was for me to be so exhausted I had no choice but to allow things to improve.

Yep. It was my own resistance. I was so set on being diligent and “in control”. I wanted it to be easy, but found it easier to put in effort than to actually focus on feeling better.

This is profound.

Rocking her to sleep I felt good that I could make things easier. But it was the relief of managing an unwanted situation, not the relief of moving towards a wanted one.

The truth is that I spent a lot of my past focusing on the unwanted and trying to escape it. I didn’t put much effort into defining what I did want.

The positive aspect is that I had great faith everything would work out. I would find the one answer that would fix everything.

But I kept fixating on the problems rather than the solutions. I kept picking at the question and all the evidence of unwanted things in my life. I kept reminding myself of why I wanted to escape, rather than looking at where I was escaping to.

In other words I was trying to manage all the unwanted things in life rather than moving toward the wanted.

Managing the unwanted implies acceptance of it, keeping it alive even while trying not to suffer from it.

Focusing on the wanted is like entering a totally different reality. Changing “I don’t want to go!” into “I want to go there.”

It’s a melancholic thing to not really know what you want. But it just takes us a little longer to make our minds up, work out what is possible, and finally resolve to push beyond that!

Our feelings don’t recognise limitations or impossibilities. It just takes us a little while to accept the truth and power of those feelings!

INFP-Melancholics and the Excitement Question

A great way of understanding the four temperaments is by looking at what excites each temperament.

Cholerics are excited by accomplishment, achievement, and ambition.

Sanguines are excited by nice things and good experiences.

Melancholics are excited by ideals and meaning.

Phlegmatics are not strongly excited by anything.

Phlegmatics are considered easy-going because they are not easily excited and they also don’t form long-lasting impressions.

That leaves melancholics in the awkward position of being not easily excited, but still forming long-lasting impressions, including the impression of not being excited by much!

INFPs are the most melancholic of the melancholics. We go through life slowly realising that we are not excited by much, and trying in our own way to get excited about the same things as our non-melancholic peers.

The Excitement Question

We tend to look at excitement as relative to other temperaments.

I like nice cars, I wouldn’t say no to a new one. But that level of excitement in me barely registers in contrast to genuine car enthusiasts.

Conversely, I get very excited by reflecting on the meaning of life, the best way to live, the nature of reality, and similar subjects that leave many people entirely disinterested.

We could just say that different people are excited by different things. I might feel out of place at a car show, while others would feel similarly out of place at a university library.

But we could point out that there are more cars than libraries, and that many people go through life quite happily avoiding libraries, whereas even those who love libraries might need a car to get them there.

In other words, these sources of excitement are not equal in this world. The things that excite melancholics are perhaps rarer and less widely valued than the things that excite other temperaments.

Must melancholics be depressed?

Melancholy has become synonymous with depression, and depression can be inversely correlated with excitability.

Cholerics would be depressed if their ambitions were stymied at every turn, their accomplishments went unrecognised and their achievements had no bearing on their station in life.

Sanguines would be depressed if bereft of social interaction, outings, engagements and all the nice objects they love.

Phlegmatics would be depressed if thrown into the spotlight, made to deal with conflict, while all the rules were cast aside and ignored.

And melancholics are often depressed because our ideals and desire for meaning are not widely shared, nor taken seriously unless in service to the values of other temperaments.

At least, that’s what I would have said in the past. It’s not my fault I’m depressed, it’s a function of living in a society dominated by non-melancholics.

But does it have to be this way?

You create your reality

I’m now accepting that it doesn’t matter what other people do or how friendly or unfriendly society looks to be.

I’m the one creating my reality, and if I keep telling a story of disenfranchisement and melancholic alienation, then I’ll continue to suffer accordingly.

This is where the excitement question gets really exciting!

Instead of complaining that society doesn’t value meaning and ideals, I can rejoice that I know more clearly than before what does excite me!

There is nothing stopping me (but my own thoughts) from turning all my attention and energy to the ideals and meaning that excite me.

Isn’t that…ideal?

I’ve learned from the Abraham-Hicks teachings that it really is just my own thoughts that create insurmountable-seeming barriers and boundaries to my happiness.

Life is not ideal? People don’t value meaning? BS. That’s just a story I’ve learned to tell, and then kept on finding evidence to support while ignoring anything that contradicts it.

Happiness is possible for melancholics, of course it is! We are the ones undermining and squelching the amazing joy and satisfaction our ideals and feelings provide us. We’ve learned to do this — we can learn to build it up instead.