Why INFP = Melancholic-Phlegmatic

Keirsey is the go-to guy for linking the four temperaments to the MBTI, and while his views apparently shifted in the course of his career, this table seems right to me.

Phlegmatic = Keirsey’s Guardians = SJ

Sanguine = Artisans = SP

Melancholic = Idealist = NF

Choleric = Rational = NT

I was already pretty sure I was an INFP based on tests and self-typing, and it didn’t take long to conclude I was melancholic-phlegmatic either.

Why would an INFP be melancholic-phlegmatic?

Look at the functional stack: FiNeSiTe

That means my two strongest functions are introverted Feeling and extroverted Intuition, making me melancholic.

My two weaker functions are introverted Sensing – which is what defines a phlegmatic in Keirsey’s arrangement – and extroverted Thinking.

So if I use all my functions in their order of strength, I’ll be foremost melancholic (NF) and with a secondary phlegmatic (Si) temperament.

But in my case I also seem to have put a bit of extra emphasis on my inferior function Te. I’ve gone through phases of being very Te oriented, in terms of setting myself goals, seeking to be efficient, driven, and effective.

When push forward with Te, I go into uncharted territory where my Si isn’t especially helpful. That leaves me forming a weird combination of Ne and Te, a kind of makeshift choleric influence.

It also seems to trigger bouts of stress-related illness, suggesting an imbalance from all that extroversion.

But all of this taken together is why I would describe myself in temperament terms as a melancholic-phlegmatic with a bit of choleric thrown in.

When I compare myself to other melancholic-phlegmatics, they seem to lack my awesome yet debilitating penchant for intense thinking, and my bootstrapping attitude to getting s*** done…within my otherwise very melancholic-phlegmatic parameters.

They don’t seem to know how to push themselves in that turn-yourself-inside-out way I’ve grown to love.

I wouldn’t recommend doing what I’ve done, but it’s nice to know where the differences lie.

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Happiness and the motivation to change

I’ve been thinking a lot about the principle of reflection I’ve observed in my life lately.

The basic idea is that my experience of reality reflects my own deeper beliefs about reality.

For example, if I really believe that life is an endless struggle, then I will find that my experience reflects endless struggle.

Applying the principle in reverse: if my experience of life is an endless struggle, then on some level I must believe that this is how life is or should be.

In order for life to feel like a struggle, we have to want things that are unattainable, or alternatively we have to sabotage the attainable things we desire.

To be more precise, we have to feel like we want certain things, only to find that these things are unattainable either intrinsically or through self-sabotage.

For example, I used to think I wanted to lose weight. That’s fine if we define ‘want’ as a feeling. But if we define want as a motivational state – a state of mind that moves you to action – then it wasn’t true that I wanted to lose weight.

Paradoxically, when I accepted that I didn’t really want to lose weight, the sudden shock motivated me to do something about it.

By extension, I might think I want life to be easy, free, secure, prosperous, and satisfying. But if life instead feels difficult, miserable, hopeless, and full of struggle, then I need to question this apparent ‘want’.

If I wanted life to be easy and free and so on, then I would act towards those goals. I would at the very least have a plan and a course of action with definable progress along the way.

If I don’t have those things, then in what sense do I really want to be free, happy, and fulfilled?

To get a little more personal: I always had a vague goal of wanting ‘answers’ to life. But if I really wanted answers, shouldn’t I at least be clear-minded about the questions?

When I grappled with the issue of weight loss, it turned out to be quite complicated and full of self-delusion and conflicting desires. At face value I wanted to lose weight, but beneath the surface I was quite complacent about it and not really motivated to change my behaviour.

So it’s not immediately clear what I want from life either. I can only really say at this point that the most obvious answers are probably not correct.

I’ve distilled this down to a useful heuristic: when you find yourself stuck in persistent negative situations, consider the possibility that you are exactly where you want to be.

This might seem absurd, but what we don’t realise is that our psyches are complicated. There are layers of belief and motivation inside us.

For example, I might want to be a successful writer, and do my best to achieve that goal. But years earlier, perhaps when I was a teenager or a child, I decided that it was best to stay on the sidelines and avoid the limelight.

I never challenged or changed that belief, I just went on living and adding new layers as I went. So now as an adult my desire for success in various aspects of life is implicitly curtailed by my pre-existing and still operational desire to avoid the limelight and live life on the sidelines.

The end result is struggle and disappointment, but even so the struggle and disappointment must be part of the picture. On some level I’m comfortable with struggle and disappointment, because they concord with my beliefs about life.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

I don’t think there’s a single, simple answer to it either. Or maybe I just don’t want there to be a simple answer.

But at the very least it’s good to recognise that your unfulfilled desire for success may be the outcome you want deep down after all.

If you merely wanted to be successful, you would surely gravitate foremost to things you could easily succeed at. You would be mindful of your past successes. You would live and breath success, and avoid any enterprise where success seemed tenuous or uncertain. You might still suffer setbacks and failures, but you wouldn’t cling to them.

The weight-loss example is brilliant: all you have to do in order to lose weight is eat dramatically less. But we don’t do that, because we don’t really want to lose weight, or because our motivation to lose weight is far weaker than our motivation to lose ourselves in the pleasure of food.

It seems obvious with weight loss because moment-by-moment we are either eating or not eating, and it’s totally in our control.

But the same is true in other aspects of life – in our thoughts and feelings we are either oriented toward or away from our goal. It may be more subtle than putting food in your mouth, but I don’t think it’s necessarily less effective.

It’s terrifying and confronting to recognise that your supposed wants and desires are only a facade. But terror and confrontation are great sources of motivation! That’s why the weight-loss book I wrote about my experience is not for everyone. It ended up being very confronting.

Sometimes we need to be confronted with the truth of our situation. If you spend your life failing at finding happiness, then it’s worth considering if you really want happiness in the first place. Many of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves if we were happy. We’d quickly find a problem or a crisis or a new struggle to drag us back into our more comfortable misery.

It sounds paradoxical, but the strong feeling I have of wanting my life to change is only a feeling. The proof is that I haven’t done anything differently, despite my apparent frustration and unhappiness.

If we define ‘want’ as a motivational state – a state of mind that results in action – then clearly I do not want life to change. As I note in the end of my weight-loss book, the thought “I want life to change” or “I want to lose weight” is really a form of self-delusion designed to distract us from what’s really going on in our minds.

Because if you admit to yourself that you don’t want life to change, that you want life to continue as it has been, the obvious question is “Why?” Why would you want life to continue in a way that you obviously don’t enjoy?

Looking at it this way forces you to own your role in making life the way it is by performing the same kinds of actions over and over with the same motives, beliefs, and feelings. Hopefully it raises in you a genuine motivation to understand, a curiosity as to why you are perpetuating a way of life that you don’t enjoy, to such an extent that you even delude yourself with thoughts of change.

Before I lost weight I thought the benefits would all be aesthetic. I was surprised to find that the greatest changes were in my relationship with food, and my overall sense of well-being.

I could not have predicted what being thin would be like. In that sense I really didn’t know what losing weight meant until I accomplished it. It’s no wonder I couldn’t really ‘want’ it in the first place.

What helped me in the end was knowing that my relationship with food was dysfunctional and seeking to ‘work it out’. That might be a more constructive approach generally: recognise that things aren’t right and try to understand where they’re going wrong.

 

 

 

 

Melancholic learning styles

I’ve had a few people turn up here searching for problems that a melancholic might experience in learning.

I tried writing a reply, but the attempt to be thorough killed my motivation.

So there’s the first clue: motivation for a melancholic is vital.

I learn best when I have a single burning question to answer, an intuition to explore, or an idea to develop.

So I really get Confucius:

The Master said, “Ts’ze, you think, I suppose, that I am one who learns many things and keeps them in memory?”

Tsze-kung replied, “Yes,-but perhaps it is not so?”

“No,” was the answer; “I seek a unity all pervading.”

An alternative translation refers to a single thread that binds all of his knowledge together. That’s what melancholics need, I think, at least when we’re trying to learn.

A single thread

A few weeks ago after martial arts practice, I asked a friend about his learning process.

His explanation of how he learns was completely foreign to me.

He said that the martial art we learn is made up of lots of different components that need to be developed in parallel. When he focuses on any given component he can tell that out of ten repetitions, some will be better than others. That gives him a clear sense of how he needs to improve. He simply knows what direction to head in.

By contrast, I find it confusing to think of lots of different components that each needs strengthening. I prefer to think of these components coming together to form a coherent whole. And this means having a highly-developed theory of how the martial art works. I seek a unity, all pervading.

Likewise, the idea of simply recognising when one repetition is better than another is outside my experience. I don’t know what direction to head in unless I have a theoretical framework to guide the way.

Why do I need strong theoretical support for a physical activity?

Well, remember that the melancholic is characterised by being unexcitable, with enduring impressions. It’s hard to learn anything when you aren’t excited, and that’s why melancholics need a strong motivation in the form of a question, an idea, or a problem to solve.

Without these things, the pointlessness and tedium of study and practice becomes unbearable. It is so much harder to retain 100 pointless facts, than to solve an interesting problem, even though you might learn the same 100 facts along the way.

With physical activity the approach to learning is similar. Instead of pointless facts, we have an array of sensory data that makes no sense without a theoretical context (like a question or a problem) to help us shape and frame it.

Without a theoretical framework, all the information from my body streams in like a torrent, and I can’t tell what is relevant and what isn’t.

There are days at training where my whole theory has burst like a bubble against some countervailing revelation from my teacher. I try going through the motions, but it feels as though I have no idea what I’m doing.

After a while I remember the parts of the theory that haven’t been shattered. I slowly piece it back together and try to reconcile it with the new data. Eventually I’m back on track.

From an outsider’s point of view it would look like I’ve suddenly forgotten years of training in an instant.

So that’s one aspect of the melancholic learning style. It sounds pretty bad.

The positive side of it is that once you’ve mastered your theoretical grasp of the subject, you know it inside-out. You can take it places no one else may have even thought to take it. And you can quickly see the connections and the contrasts with other theories, systems, and ideas.

In other words, whatever you have learned becomes a part of the greater all-pervading unity.

The writing process: attack from all sides!

I’ve been helping a friend with his writing process.

And though I’ve only published one book, that’s still enough to take it from “the blind leading the blind” to “in the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”.  My advice has some merit.

By coincidence, today we were both stuck at different stages of our drafts. So I gave him the advice that was as much for me as it was for him:

Getting stuck, losing motivation – these difficulties aren’t obstacles to the writing process, they are the writing process. And there’s no single secret or technique to getting past these obstacles, other than to keep attacking them from every possible angle, to keep pushing towards your goal.

The beauty of writing fantasy is that your own goal of publishing one, two or ten books can be viewed as a “hero’s journey” in its own right, parallel to whatever journey you’re exploring within the story. The challenges you face are largely emotional, motivational, and sometimes intellectual. You can’t see the way forward, you don’t know what should happen next, the story suddenly feels very dull, you realise you have to go back and rewrite major scenes, or even cut out scenes or sub-plots that you really enjoyed.

(Looking at it this way, I sometimes wonder if fantasy stories are a kind of code created by storytellers to describe their own frustrations and victories in creating stories, but that’s a little too meta.)

But like any hero’s journey, you have to take stock of where you’re really at. Maybe you’ve finished your first book and it feels like a triumph, or maybe you’re struggling to decide your setting and it feels like a major battle.

At times like these it’s good to stand back and consider the big picture: you might feel like Sam and Frodo on the verge of their ascent to Mount Doom, but maybe you’re actually Sam and Frodo wringing their hands over how soon they should leave for Crickhollow?

I’m using a similar thought to help keep me on track as I write the sequel to my first novel To Create a World. I figure that in order to make any kind of reasonable living from self/indie published ebooks I need between five and ten of them up for sale, preferably by yesterday. So in my mind, I’m not hesitantly agonising over the plot of my second novel, I’m desperately playing catch-up to my fourth or fifth book in the series.

I’m not the hero defeating his first big baddie, I’m the hero stalking his second, thinking about how far I have to go before i can face the final enemy.

At the same time, I have to admit that even this mindset is a little contrived or naive. Real veterans might scoff, or just shrug their shoulders and continue with the work. But that’s just the way the journey unfolds.

My aforementioned first novel is selling slowly. I’m not too worried, since I’m not investing in marketing at this stage. It’s more about doing what I can to have it available, and keep myself on track to finish the sequel(s).

One thing I’ve noticed so far is that the sequel feels much more consistent with the genre. To Create a World draws on some very big ideas that (as far as I can tell) don’t usually show up in fantasy quite so explicitly. I’m excited to see how the sequel turns out, but so far I’d have to say there’s a much higher ratio of fantasy content to mind-blowing philosophy than in the first book. Check it out on Amazon, or click on the pic for all other online stores.

Untying knots

I thought it was Hui Neng, but apparently Lin Chi wrote:

I have no teaching to give to people; all I do is untie knots.

I’ve recently finished the fourth draft of a novel I’m working on, and waiting for feedback from a reviewer. The drafting process has dragged on, giving way to the daily demands of raising a child. But the need to work on it, to get something done, was a fixture in the back of my mind all this time.

Now that I have nothing substantial to work on for a while, the need to get something done has lumbered into the foreground and is stomping around, nervously seeking fresh prey.

I didn’t realise how strong it was, but I guess committing to writing a book presumes some degree of long-term motivation.

So now I’m sitting here, quietly possessed by the spirit of accomplishment with no satisfying avenues of expression at hand.

It’s a rare moment of deeper self-awareness.

And in the context of recent thoughts about free will, the illusion of self, and acceptance of reality, I feel that this need to accomplish something is another knot to untie.

Because – believe it or not – I have actually accomplished things before in my life, and it doesn’t feel like this, this slightly desperate need to find a worthwhile goal to immerse myself in.

This feels quite a lot more like the boredom and frustration that often plunges us into mechanisms of distraction and escape: food, tv, games, etc.

I’ve tried to explain in earlier posts that the thoughts and impressions that feel like “me” are just thoughts and impressions. If you observe closely, “me” is always changing, and you can even ask the perennial non-dualist question: if this is “me” then who or what is it that is observing “me”?

This strong desire to accomplish something is one of those impressions that constitutes “me”. It just happens to be a very forceful and deeply held impression, one that is capable of stimulating and initiating other, associated thoughts of “me”.

In other words, this is a big knot and it is tightly bound.

So how do you untie a knot?

It’s a bit tricky, because if “you” doesn’t really exist in terms of agency and control, then the knot is being untied in spite of, not because of, the illusion of control.

This is why the untying of knots is attributed to grace – an external, divine influence – or to the equally divine wisdom or insight that cuts through the illusion at the heart of this “knot”.

Because in reality the knot itself is just a thought or impression. It is not in control, it does not have real power. It is more like a symbol of how your mind is functioning. It is like a label that tells you what is going on inside your mind.

So here’s the thing: the kind of wisdom or grace that cuts through the illusion and unties the knot is the same wisdom or grace that dispels the illusion of “me”.

And as such, this wisdom or grace does not come about because of anything “you” or “me” can do. Rather, it comes about despite the illusion of “me” and “you”.

It comes about, because it comes about. It simply comes about, and the mind ceases to create the impression that this “knot” has power, or that this knot is “you”.

Fiction update

So, I’ve found it hard to write lately – you may have noticed. Part of the problem is that I’ve been writing so much. I’ve finally discovered a meaningful, motivating, and sustainable approach to writing fiction.

I haven’t wanted to mention it in case talking about it undermined my motivation. But I’m nearly 28,000 words into the first draft, and more importantly, I have a plot!

I’m aiming for 40,000 which should qualify it as a short novel. It’s in the children’s fantasy genre, and I hope to have the first draft finished in the coming month.

I wrote here some time ago of my struggles with fiction. I’ve found non-fiction comparatively easy, but fiction challenged me. I wrote a children’s novel about eight years ago, but there was something fundamentally wrong with it, and I’d since struggled to find the inspiration to have another try at it.

Having found an approach that inspires me, it seems I may have lost my inspiration for non-fiction writing. I think it has something to do with the sense of efficacy.

In the past, fiction seemed nice but pointless. Non-fiction was more meaningful because it dealt with real issues in the real world. But now I see that fiction is, or can be, more meaningful because it frees real issues from real-world constraints. It lets us focus on an issue or a theme in a way that would be a distortion of the real world, but which makes sense in the creative domain.

I touched on this in previous posts on the limits of non-fiction, and the paradox of fiction. So I had some sense of what the answer must be, but had not yet truly arrived at it.Unfortunately, now that I’ve arrived at it, non-fiction seems uninteresting and ineffectual by comparison. It isn’t, of course, but I’ve got a word count to meet over in my other world, so further reflection will have to wait.

Metaphysics, creativity, and the tyranny of conventions

Does metaphysics undermine creativity?

I’ve noticed that I can easily get engrossed in a novel which, if I had to write it, would bore me to tears. Even LotR, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about hobbits, elves, magic rings etc., with the degree of interest required to motivate actual writing.

Nonetheless I gave fiction another go last night, and decided to focus on a positive motive – a kind of “write something that interests or excites you”. Translating this into: what is something that I would find truly awe-some?

What came to mind was the idea of contingency/emptiness, the ontological shallowness of creation. Ok cool, I’ll just write a story about that…

In principle, it’s hard or perhaps impossible to write about things we don’t care about or think important. On the level of metaphysics, the significance of the ontological gap between necessity and contingency kinda dampens down the significance of everything on the ‘contingent’ side. It’s just hard to get excited about imaginary objects when you know we are all already, in a sense, imaginary objects.

So what I tried instead was to put contingency into a story, by having a character who finds an object that allows him to pass “backstage” so to speak, and enters a kind of happy void he can sit in for as long as he likes.  This is appealing in a “ring of invisibility” kind of way because it feeds my melancholic desire to be able to just disappear and relax whenever I want to. It offers a sense of ideal freedom, but it also combines it with the ontological significance of contingency/emptiness.  I don’t know where it’s going to go, but at face value I can say “yeah that would be pretty cool”.

Forget about conventions, for now.

Last night I also spent some time thinking about the stylistic obstacles to writing fiction. Basically, whenever I try to write down an idea in narrative form, my brain kicks into “narrative fiction 101” mode and tries to force me to follow what I assume is a fairly basic and cliche stylistic model. Yet I know from writing non-fiction that the supposed conventions of the genre fill me with unspeakable dismay and that the quickest way to kill my motivation is to approach it with a formulaic mindset.

The vague and semi-conscious conventions of fiction turn writing into a clumsy, awkward chore.  So why bother with them? In my non-fiction I have no trouble side-stepping these “rules”. I’ve learned to follow the winding path of my inspiration wherever it leads. Why not do the same with fiction, and just write the parts I’m inspired to write, even if it seems incomplete along the way?

Besides, I’ve often found in non-fiction that after producing fifteen hundred words of inspired ideas and enthused analysis, it’s easy to tack on a brief introduction or explanatory notes to help the unfamiliar reader find his or her bearings. But if I had to start with the introduction or explanation, I would never start at all.

If you’re the kind of writer who feels his way along, then you have to start with the parts that feel interesting, exciting, or awe-some, and leave the drudgery to later – often much later when you know what is really going on.

I’m hoping this approach will also work for fiction if I combine it with the awe-some element described above – homing in on truly motivating ideas while side-stepping the major sources of friction and drudgery.

Imagine you’re a phleg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choleric, Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic

 

That’s the face of an irresolvable internal conflict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Discovering the New Age author within

In the past I toyed with the idea of becoming a ‘spiritual writer’ or producing self-help books, but held back because I thought it wasn’t enough to be able to talk the talk. I’ve since learned that actual virtue, enlightenment, or profound wisdom and compassion are not necessary; you only have to tell people that you have these amazing qualities, and maintain the appearance of having them. It turns out that the only obstacle to pursuing such a path is being able to live with yourself while you tell people things they want to hear in exchange for money.

When I was devouring religious and mystical texts in my youth the boundaries between mysticism and early New Age figures were quite flexible. You could go from reading books on Zen and Sufism to something on the ‘Fourth Way’ of George Gurdjieff, and assume he was someone who had followed the same path: studying diverse sects and texts and arriving at a method that captured the essence of a spiritual path without the pitfalls of ‘organised religion’. (It turns out that Gurdjieff’s students – in particular his female students – were less successful in avoiding the pitfalls of charismatic, idiosyncratic, sexually exploitative ‘spiritual teachers’.)

Likewise, many books on self-help and psychotherapy took inspiration from Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist themes, or from a kind of syncretic Jungian melange. Such texts were derivative of religious themes, and right or wrong, seemed sincere in their intent to go deeper into the nature of the mind and of reality. I read many such books, bringing an undergraduate philosophical approach to their logic and structure, keen to find any unique elements or novel perspectives that might shed light on my own experiences. Some of it was genuinely helpful, and quite amenable to an individual already committed to questioning and pondering the meaning of life and the nature of reality.

So when I read German spiritual author Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, I could see pretty clearly what he was doing. All the elements were there, if not quite of the “Hero’s Journey” then at least the “New Age writer’s journey”: a troubled youth, a period of intense questioning and despair, a plunge into ‘the abyss’ a la the Dark Night of the Soul, a return in the guise of the Holy Fool who sits on park benches in a state of enlightened bliss, a career dispensing wisdom that grows organically, and finally a book that hits the New York Times bestseller list after an all-important endorsement from Oprah.

In terms of temperament, Tolle would most likely be melancholic – an idealist shaped by his struggle with existential despair. In terms of provenance, the esoteric tone and content of Tolle’s work are reminiscent of his early theosophical influences, reportedly through the work of the German theosophist Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken.

Best described as “a sort of New Age re-working of Zen”, Tolle’s work has some interesting ideas in it, but if it weren’t for the Oprah endorsement might well be sitting in relative obscurity commensurate with the arcane tone of the book.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Eckhart Tolle. He looks like a mole that has just climbed out its burrow and is sitting, squinting and disoriented in the daylight. Others have described him as ‘elfin’, but I think the word they’re looking for is ‘gnome-like’.

As such, he lacks the choleric self-confidence of his New Age comrades, those who fall more in the ‘motivational speaker’ and ‘personal development’ categories. Writers and speakers like Dr Wayne Dyer, who counters Tolle’s depressed, esoteric, European persona with the broad openness and plain talk of an American self-made man. If Tolle is gnome-like, Dyer looks like he might eat a gnome. There’s nothing especially esoteric about Dyer’s work, and his focus on motivation, success, and opportunity with a spiritual vibe are well suited to an American audience.

I’m not suggesting that either Tolle or Dyer are frauds, but surely at least one of you reading can see how easy it would be to fake and embellish a rich spiritual journey, and begin projecting to others the kind of enlightened guru they want to see?

The public appetite for spiritual nourishment is unabated despite or perhaps because of the challenges to traditional Christianity in Europe, the US, and indeed Australia. I’ve seen first-hand that people can be astoundingly credulous, willing to believe anything that bears Oprah’s Imprimatur, while reserving their cynicism for the religion of their birth.

With an estimated net worth of $15 million and $20 million respectively, Tolle and Dyer demonstrate there is no longer any need to associate spiritual wisdom with temporal poverty. So do you want to become a New Age writer? The audience is willing to believe – you just have to believe in yourself.

Why learn a martial art?

Melancholics have a hard time communicating the value of their interests and ideals. We’ve learned through experience that we are in a minority, that the things which motivate us do not tend to motivate others and vice versa. I was amazed to learn that ‘everyone is doing it’ is actually an implicit motivator for some people, designating the gold standard in life-choices. I’ve only ever interpreted such statements ironically; and though I follow the crowd in many instances, knowing that ‘everyone is doing it’ counts as a disincentive.

But one of the themes of this blog is to begin communicating the value I find in my various, seemingly useless interests, pastimes, and ideals. In other words, can I explain to you why I do things that give me neither money nor social status nor an efficient path to commonly identifiable individual or social goods such as ‘getting fit’ and ‘making friends’?

This time the topic is martial arts. Specifically: why have I spent more than half my life putting time and effort into something that is unlikely to ever prove ‘useful’?

I started learning Taekwondo as a young teenager after my parents gave me a choice: either join the local TKD class or sign up with the local soccer team. Soccer is probably fun if you are somewhat fit, coordinated, and sociable. But since I was none of those things I chose TKD.

The training did improve my fitness, strength, and flexibility, but it did so under the guise of learning a deeper skill – the ability to defend myself against other people.

After a couple of years a friend introduced me to a very different martial art, a rare, difficult style of kungfu from Southern China that was taught informally within a closed group. It was immediately clear that this style of kungfu was deeper than anything I had learned in TKD. The training was much more complicated and intense, the tactics far more committed and aggressive, and the techniques significantly more powerful.

I’ve been training in this art for more than sixteen years, and my motivation, understanding, and interest have changed a great deal in that time. Sometimes I wonder what I get out of it, why I am still motivated. Is it simply that having put so much in, it would be a waste to stop now? Or has it become so habitual that I no longer need a conscious motive?

My recent post on violence and the masculine ideal helped bring out an answer, an enduring value in martial arts that is independent of any particular style or any degree of proficiency. That value is often described simply as ‘self-defense’, but is better described in a more nuanced way as the practised ability to ward off and resist violence.

This is the lasting appeal of the martial arts: they train skills and techniques that in and of themselves increase our self-mastery. They develop latent physical and mental potential in the paradigmatic and pragmatic context of human violence.

Paradoxically, evidence suggests that learning a martial art may make people less inclined to engage in violent behaviour. Anecdotally the logic is obvious: people who learn martial arts spend many hours training techniques and practising them in a controlled environment with willing participants. If you just wanted to get in fights, you’d be better off joining a football team or being obnoxious in popular night spots after 2am.

For me, self-mastery is the core value behind martial arts practice, and provides an answer to the existential challenge of unjust human aggression. I do not want to find myself ever the victim of an attack that could have been avoided or defended with a reasonable degree of preparation on my part. Unlikely as such a scenario is, given the low risk lifestyle of a philosopher who’d rather be enjoying sleep at 3am than getting glassed in a drunken pub fight, I nonetheless have the pleasure and the challenge of training these same skills for their own sake.

The development of these skills has indeed been one of the most challenging and rewarding things in my life. It has been a more consistent part of my life than any other interest, occupation, or training. It has been a source of inspiration, frustration, achievement and dismay, especially for someone whose passion for the art has always outstripped his aptitude. I can’t imagine life without it, and yet my efforts and dedication will always feel insufficient. It is humbling to think that what I get out of it is limited by what I have put in. There will always be more I could have put in, and I can only admit fault in being a less than ideal exemplar of the art.

Perhaps that is why the value of this ideal is hard to communicate – I keep returning to the subject of my failure and inadequacy. But ask yourself whether you have something in your life that makes you want to persevere and work hard in full awareness of your faults? Is there anything that makes you feel inspired and humbled at the same time? Do you have something into which you can keep investing while knowing that the returns will never feel like ‘enough’?

Without exaggerating the hopelessness of the situation, I think this is where philosophy and martial arts coincide. Whether you seek to master a skill or know the truth, you’ll find the horizon always stretching out before you, always out of reach. My teacher tells me he is always learning, and perhaps that is the key to such pursuits: to love the path, and find comfort in being someone who learns rather than someone who has just arrived.