Evolving spiritual beliefs

Spiritual or metaphysical beliefs represent how we see ourselves in relation to all that is.

Our metaphysical beliefs matter, even if they don’t seem to figure in everyday life.

But even our metaphysics are influenced by our individual personalities. It’s not easy to reconcile a “self-made man” ethos with a belief in divine providence. Personal responsibility doesn’t sit well with a belief in an all-powerful God.

On a different tack, the impersonal nature of Daoist or some Buddhist beliefs might appeal to, or repel, people depending on how they relate to the idea of a personal deity.

It’s not just that faith means different things to different people, but that different people are drawn to different ways of relating to existence itself, or conceiving of that relationship.

My metaphysics were unwittingly shaped by traumatic experiences as well as my underlying temperament; hence I was drawn to spiritual perspectives and practices where the individual mind finds peace and wholeness by realising its unity with a divine and transcendent truth.

Everyone knows that words themselves aren’t the way, they can only point the way; hence it doesn’t matter if you call that transcendent being God or Sunyata, or the Dao. But it does matter what we are trying to accomplish in relation to that transcendent being.

I always emphasised the loss of self in the divine, the search for security and sureness and freedom by surrendering individual boundaries and letting go of personal preferences and will.

But now I can see that this was also a way of retreating from conflict and trauma, surrendering boundaries and a sense of self that were already extremely fragile. I neglected the fact that the union of the human and the transcendent is an intermingling. We connect to the divine not to surrender a flawed human experience, but to complete it and make it whole.

Some mystics wrote of losing themselves completely in the divine…but they found enough of themselves afterward to speak or write about it.

New wine

Jesus said “Whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”…and I don’t know what he was talking about. Why would you want to keep a hateful life for eternity?

I don’t worry anymore about things that don’t make sense to me. If it doesn’t make sense to me, it probably isn’t meant for me. But at the same time, I’ve outgrown some things that used to make sense.

It used to make sense spiritually to deny myself, hate my life, and look for the freedom of retreating into something I knew to be perfect, pure and free. But now I’ve decided that life is supposed to feel good, and be good. My life is supposed to be happy.

And all of a sudden I saw the shift in my spiritual beliefs: I am not meant to be losing myself in a greater, transcendent whole. I am a part of the whole, to which the greater, transcendent, divine being extends and communicates itself.

How does trauma change personality?

Three years ago I was writing about the Big 5 personality traits and how they might correspond to temperament and MBTI.

In the three years since I’ve done heaps of work on finding relief, focusing on more positive thoughts, and letting go of past trauma.

Today I was inspired to redo my Big 5 test for fun and see if my results have changed. Clearly this is a very subjective test for me to take, but nonetheless the results are very satisfying and reflect the shift in my personality and self-concept.

First, here are my results from three years ago:

Back then I was surprised to see conscientiousness and agreeableness come out so low. I concluded that perhaps trying too hard to be conscientious and agreeable in certain circumstances is actually a manifestation of neuroticism, and exacerbates those negative emotions.

Now let’s look at the new results:

As you can see, neuroticism is waaaay down (yay!) and conscientiousness and agreeableness are way up!

Openness to experience has also decreased a little, by about the same amount as introversion.

So, at risk of correcting myself again in another three years, what is going on here?

The most significant thing is that I am now better able to tell when my personality is being shaped by a trauma-based response. That’s the main reason why my neuroticism score decreased so much: while I am much more calm and relaxed in daily life, I also know now that calm and relaxed is who I really am, and each day I practice letting go of neurotic responses.

Being less anxious and stressed, I’m also less driven to find new ideas and different perspectives. I’m better able to sit still and appreciate where I am rather than restlessly searching for “new” answers and solutions.

And so, contrary to what I thought three years ago, I am happy to own my conscientious and agreeable traits, untangling them from neurotic impulses as well as neurotic standards of perfection.

My desk is still messy, but in other aspects of life I am the first to tidy and clean and sort. During the past three years I found a way to enjoy cleaning the kitchen, rather than feeling burdened and crushed by the chore. I love being organised…it’s just that neuroticism derived from past trauma vastly increases the internal cost of any such action.

I won’t just tidy my desk one day; I’ll buy a whole new desk that is optimised to meet our needs and be easily cleaned and organised and tidied, a desk that is a pleasure to own and to use.

And ultimately that’s where I hope my future Big 5 tests will go as well: with a self-concept based on the congruence of what feels good to me and what I actually do.

The long term goal of healing from trauma is to have no uncertainty as to how I really am, because I do what feels good to me.

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 and introversion vs feeling good

I found the perfect Abraham-Hicks video discussing what “low energy” really means, but first here’s how I found the term and its associations with temperament and introversion.

Energy vs social interest

One of the historic two-factor personality theories used combinations of energy and social interest to describe what are essentially the four temperaments.

Melancholics are low energy, low social interest and I love this depiction because it captures my past experience in ways I otherwise struggled to convey.

After all, “I’m tired” implies to most people a prior cause of tiredness, but I would feel tired even if I had done nothing that day.

“I’m always tired, for no reason” implies to most people some kind of chronic ailment šŸ˜…

But “I’m low energy” is unfamiliar enough of a term to wrong-foot people and it immediately implies the converse: some people are just “high energy”.

“Social interest” is equally brilliant because I’m too polite to say “I don’t like socialising” and anyway it’s not strictly true. I just don’t feel the “pull” that some people evidently feel to be surrounded by others.

And keeping energy and social interest distinct is brilliant too because cholerics will get it immediately and stop asking, recognising themselves as “high energy” but also “low social interest”.

But that’s not temperament!

Here everything gets turned on its head, because if you’ve ever seen me in full flight of ideas and inspiration you would never consider me “low energy” and if you ever saw me with the right person at the right time you wouldn’t peg me as “low social interest” either.

That’s why I referred to the Abraham-Hicks video at the beginning, because in it a woman describes her life-long struggle with feeling low energy, depressed and suffering physical pain.

In other words she sounds like a melancholic.

But the Abraham response is not that some people are simply low energy by default.

Feeling low energy is the feeling of resistance.

Abraham uses the analogy of sitting awkwardly and cutting off the blood flow to your foot or leg. It feels weird and uncomfortable because you’re impeding the flow of blood and life-giving oxygen and nutrients to the cells in that part of your body.

Likewise, feeling low energy, depressed and in physical pain are symptoms of negative beliefs about various subjects or about life itself. These habits of thought are obstructing or limiting the flow of energy, which is the essence of good feeling.

Personality differences

Nonetheless Abraham does mention that some people are especially focused with their thoughts. The woman in the video just happened to have gotten off on the wrong foot earlier in life, and had devoted her highly focused mind to resistant thoughts instead of good-feeling ones.

So there is evidently some degree of individual difference. It would take perhaps more time for this woman to change the direction of her focus, to train her powerful mind in better-feeling thoughts.

But as Abraham gets her to acknowledge, it’s not as though every moment of her life has been full of consistent and unrelenting depression or low energy or pain.

And I recognise that in myself. There are subjects where I’ve felt so good my feet don’t touch the ground. There are social interactions I do seek out and enjoy.

There are countless moments throughout the day where my once iron grip on misery slipped right off. There have even been times when I’ve had to work hard to regain that deathly serious focus on feeling bad!

Even a melancholic can be happy and “high energy” if their day consists of one exciting and satisfying subject after another.

And all it takes is some practice and some focus in the right direction, retraining our powerful minds for happiness.

This new understanding of “low energy” doesn’t negate differences in temperament. In fact it raises the truly exciting question of what life might look like for a melancholic who has learnt to stay in alignment with his or her own energy!

OCEAN follow-up: disorganised and disagreeable

I did an online test for the Big 5 personality traits just now, and the results were interesting:

As expected, I’m both extremely Introverted and extremely Neurotic.

In my previous post I suggested that I might be high in Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, but I also noted that these qualities felt forced and unnatural.

I subsequently read the actual criteria for the two traits, and concluded that I’m practicing “pseudo-” Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, attempting to mimic traits I don’t actually possess.

In other words, I’m not naturally an organised, disciplined, tidy person, but I put pressure on myself to be organised and disciplined where it counts.

The results of the online test corroborate my suspicions.

Openness to new experiences was surprisingly high, but that could be because the trait is manifested differently between introverts and extroverts. An extrovert might be open to “new experiences”, but an introvert can be open to “new ideas”, ways of thinking and seeing the world.

So I think I’m on the right track: trying too hard to be conscientious and agreeable in certain circumstances is actually a manifestation of neuroticism, and exacerbates those negative emotions.

BeingĀ lessĀ agreeable andĀ moreĀ disorganised might not change my other traits, but it would be more authentic, and, if I’m right, authenticity could be the key to ameliorating neuroticism.