Choosing how we feel

Having the attitude that “everything is perfect exactly as it is” feels good.

For melancholics in particular it may be an expression of providence: the knowledge that all things are working towards the good.

If all things are working towards the good, and we know it, then it follows that everything is perfect exactly as it is.

Not perfect in the sense that it is complete, but perfect in the sense that we are where we are meant to be, everything is as it is meant to be.

This isn’t a question of judgement or assessment, it’s about attitude and feeling.

If you have the attitude of recognising everything is perfect as it is, then you will feel that everything is perfect as it is.

And by contrast, if you don’t feel good, you must be thinking or believing that not everything is perfect.

We see this reflected in the story of the fall of man. Genesis tells us of everything God created “and God saw that it was good”.

Everything was good, and the first humans lived in paradise, right up until the moment they accepted the serpent’s contention that things were not perfect after all.

The first humans heeded the serpent’s doubt, and that was the cause of their fall.

False beliefs as choice

If we don’t feel good, then we must not be thinking that all is perfect as it is.

For years I sought to identify such thoughts and correct them. Talk myself out of my fears and worries and doubts.

But although it can be helpful to change such beliefs, it isn’t necessary to convince ourselves that they are false, or to try to work out the truth.

Otherwise there is potentially no end to all the little beliefs that would need correcting.

Instead we can view these bad-feeling thoughts not as the cause of our unhappiness but as reflections or elaborations of a bad-feeling focus.

For example, a depressed person can come up with many negative thoughts that match the feeling of depression and hopelessness.

These thoughts aren’t necessarily stored up in our heads, rather we uncover or create more and more of them to match our depressed focus.

Sometimes changing a belief or thought changes our focus as well, but it’s not always the most effective way to feel better.

By contrast a change in focus will always cause us to feel better (or worse depending on what we focus on).

It is possible to recognise that when we don’t feel good, we are harbouring an attitude of doubt or fear instead of an attitude that everything is perfect.

With practice we can actually change our focus from a bad feeling state to a good feeling one, without having to argue with or analyse or reprogram our thoughts.

Before thought

In the Abraham Hicks material, thought and “vibration” are used interchangably. They might just as well have used the word “spirit” but that it is too loaded with preconceptions.

Our verbalised thoughts and beliefs are expressions or elaborations of the “vibration” we are focused on. We translate this vibration into thought, and it is further reflected in our feelings and then our external circumstances.

An analogy from the Abraham Hicks material is that of a radio dial that controls the frequency our radio is tuned to. If you change the frequency (vibration) you receive different signals (thoughts).

Learning to control our focus in this way is superior to trying to argue with ourselves or debate our thoughts in hopes of shifting that dial. You could petition a classical station to play more jazz, but it’s more effective just to turn the dial until you find a station where jazz is already playing.

Choosing to feel good

I initially struggled with the idea of ignoring things that feel bad, or getting off difficult subjects.

My negative feelings were heavy and persistent, so I assumed I needed something equally firm and concrete to dislodge them.

But feeling good is light and easy. You don’t need to dislodge or destroy bad feelings, just stop focusing on them and they’ll dissipate.

I’m coming around to the idea that I don’t need to prove to myself (or others) that everything is perfect as it is, because this attitude just feels really really good.

I don’t need to logically or even illogically convince myself that fears and doubts are unwarranted, because I’ve gradually accepted through experience that it feels much better to feel good than to feel bad, and it seems that I can choose to focus in ways that feel good rather than feeling bad.

So whatever issue seems to conflict with “everything is perfect exactly as it is” can be deactivated. I can simply focus back on perfection and ease in the same way that I can relax a tense muscle.

We are the ones who determine the contents of our own minds by virtue of what we focus upon. For most of us this is only a theoretical control, but with practice it can become actual.

The ideal is to be able to feel good, find relief, soothe ourselves by choosing where we focus, and thereby create a happier and more fulfilling reality for ourselves and become part of a happier and more fulfilling reality for others.

Everything is perfect as it is

The mystics attest that everything is perfect as it is.

As a teenager I accepted this and sought to arrive at the same perspective – to experience everything as already perfect.

But I could never seem to maintain that experience of perfection, and in my efforts to regain it and hold it for longer I inadvertently accepted a new premise:

Everything is perfect as it is, if only I could realise it.

Realising the perfection of everything became, paradoxically, a personal imperfection I struggled to overcome.

In the Abraham Hicks material, it is advised that we adopt an attitude of appreciation towards “what is”, to accept that where we are right now is exactly where we are meant to be.

This can seem hard to stomach when we don’t like aspects of our present reality. But the whole point is that our focus, our expectations and our attitude create our reality, so the best thing we can do to improve reality is accept it and appreciate it as it is.

But the caveat is that there’s only one reason why we seek to improve reality in the first place: because we believe we will feel better.

Insisting that circumstances change before we can feel better is putting the cart before the horse. But so is insisting that nothing change until I feel better.

Not only did I make “realising perfection” an unattainable desire that embodied all the imperfection in my reality, but I implicitly insisted that nothing at all could improve or should improve until I achieved that desire.

I told myself there was no point doing anything, because anything I could do was irrelevant and deluded without my goal of “realising perfection”.

Realising perfection, the very thing that was supposed to eliminate imperfection and struggle, became the narrow focus of all imperfection and struggle.

I wanted to be enlightened, and I determined that life itself was meaningless and irrelevant unless and until I accomplished that spiritual goal.

So what now?

Well, everything is perfect as it is, is an attitude rather than an accomplishment. It’s not a “realisation” to be gained by sufficient understanding (even though I understand it now). Instead it is an attitude to adopt that makes life feel better…as though everything actually were perfect.

Because the perfection of everything includes not only external things and other people, it includes my own self.

As I sought to “realise” perfection before, I continued to view myself as imperfect. But if I view myself – and everything else – as perfect, then…that’s perfect!

Unpacking Pride

I’ve been quoting an excerpt from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in which he describes precisely how Lucifer wished to be “like God” and so fell from grace:

he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

What exactly does this mean? It is a very Thomistic statement, and the language could do with some elaboration for a contemporary audience.

His Last End

An end is a goal. It is the intended conclusion or outcome of an action, or the use or purpose or action of an object.

This sense of the word is retained in the phrase “to what end?”

The end of a coffee machine is to make coffee. The end of drinking the coffee is enjoyment, stimulation, quenching of thirst, or social connection.

The last end is the ultimate purpose or action. When it comes to human beings, our last end is something we have been trying to figure out for millennia, usually through philosophy and religion.

In orthodox Christianity the last end of humanity is to know and to love God.

Beatitude

Aquinas tells us what he means by beatitude in a section dealing with the beatitude (or blessedness) of God:

nothing else is understood to be meant by the term beatitude than the perfect good of an intellectual nature; which is capable of knowing that it has a sufficiency of the good which it possesses, to which it is competent that good or ill may befall, and which can control its own actions.

Trying to explain Aquinas using Aquinas is a bit recursive, so lets quickly note that “the perfect good of” means a perfected, complete state of being. “An intellectual nature” means a being with intellectual faculties, ie. “capable of knowing”. “Competent” just means suitable or fitting.

In other words, beatitude for a human means our most perfect and fulfilled state of being, a state in which we lack nothing that is good for us. This includes knowing that we lack nothing that is good for us.

This is paradise. To want for nothing, and have no doubts about being in true paradise.

The Virtue of His Own Nature

“Nature” here means essence. When we say something is “not in my nature” we are describing ourselves in our most intimate and essential being. Forget “mother nature”, this nature is the essence of who and what you are.

“Virtue” is a little tricky. We use the phrase “by virtue of” to mean “because of” or “caused by”. Virtue comes from the Latin vir meaning ‘man’. A virtuous man is, in a manner of speaking, a manly man. In other words, to be virtuous is to have all the qualities of an ideal human being.

But the term can be applied to anything. The virtue of a knife is its ability to cut things. the virtue of a coffee machine is its capacity to make good coffee. So when we say “by virtue of”, we mean “thanks to this quality”.

Defining Pride

Paraphrasing Aquinas our own pride consists in desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

Thanks to our quick dip into Thomistic terminology we can say that pride means wanting our most complete state of perfection to be something that can be attained through our own qualities.

The orthodox Christian idea of perfection cannot be attained without God. To know and love God requires a relationship with God that is beyond our natural capacities. So perfection, paradise, cannot be attained through our own qualities.

The Irony of Pride’s Perfection

The irony is that our pride causes us to settle for a much lesser perfection. Hence Milton’s Lucifer deciding it was better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

While we still desire happiness, insisting that we attain it by ourselves immediately lowers our aim. Our last end becomes whatever trace of perfection we can strive for, though in reality it mostly devolves into endless striving.

In pride, our last end of beatitude becomes a distant promise of perfection towards which we can only ever struggle in the hope that we will find it fulfilling.

In other words, our struggle for happiness in this broken and frustrating world is already the perfection we obtain by our own powers. This is the dismal paradise that our feeble nature built, and the only consolation is the impression that we built it all by ourselves, and the hope that things will get better before the end.

As God said to Jeremiah:

my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Yet the promise of the Gospel is that God is ready with his grace at every moment to restore His relationship with us, to bring us to a blessed state entirely beyond our own nature and capacity.

The only obstacle is the one we ourselves present, in our recusant desire to do it on our own, for ourselves, and in our own way.

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.