Stop doing that thing you keep doing

Our favorite analogy is the cork that bobs on the surface of the water. And when you hold it under the water, it is unnatural. It is natural for you to let go of it, and it is natural for it to bob. But when you take hold of a thought that does not feel good, and the negative emotion sweeps over you, you remain in an unnatural state for as long as you hold your attention upon it. – Abraham Hicks

I’ve been keeping a journal or notebook for a number of years now, where I write down the problems I’m dealing with and try to analyse them, look for solutions, or just get some perspective on them.

I’ve been doing this for a while but I wasn’t sure how long until today, when I found an old notebook from my Honours year in philosophy back in 2003, full of the kinds of personal musings and reflections that have since filled many notebooks and scraps of paper.

I opened it by chance to 19/03/2003 the exact day that I realised I was actually depressed, and had been for a long time. Up to that point I’d assumed everyone felt kinda the same way, and my personal struggles were just part of a bigger spiritual reality we all face.

The notes are so familiar. I wish I could say that they weren’t; yet the style and content barely changed in the 16 years that followed: analysing fears, worries, tension, hypervigilance, and trying to reconcile it all with the spiritual ideas that captivated me.

16 years of trying to work it all out, the frustration showing again and again but always returning to square one, as if I could make sense of it all…if only I could find the right question!

I get the feeling my life improved over those 16 years despite rather than because of my obsessive attempts to find an answer.

Because although every line of my past writing strives toward a satisfying conclusion that is never final, the truly lasting impression is in the tone.

It’s negative. Negatively framed, because I’m always trying to escape from misery and suffering; negatively directed because I’m unflinchingly self-critical lest I make the mistake of going easy on myself and shrinking from “hard truths”; and negatively realised because it never ever ended.

16 years of self-analysis and reflection didn’t arrive at an answer, but they did lend my negative thoughts powerful momentum.

Don’t go digging

One of the challenging messages of the Abraham Hicks material was that we aren’t well served by going digging for answers, focusing on our problems, or revisiting painful subjects.

This makes sense if you consider that our goal is to come into alignment with our inner being, the presence of God within us, and God doesn’t focus on unwanted conditions past, present, or future, real or only worried about.

Further, whatever we focus on becomes active in the filtering and creating of our reality. The more I focused on my suffering and misery, the more my suffering and misery persisted.

In the past year and a half I’ve been reading the Abraham Hicks material and using it to become less of a pessimist, and to actually enjoy my life. Yet my desire to “dig in” and analyse obstacles and problems persisted.

It’s slowly grown weaker, and finding this 16 year old notebook has given me the opportunity to see how little the analysis and “problem-solving” really contributed, other than to perpetuate itself.

The irony is that I don’t have better answers to the questions my past self was asking. I never did find the answers I was looking for. But I’ve quickly realised it wasn’t about the questions or the answers, but the awful and depressing thoughts I was so intently focused on.

Stop doing that thing you do

Abraham uses the analogy of a cork floating in the water to describe our emotional state. We would be bobbing happily at the surface, if only we didn’t focus on things that hold our cork under water.

If we aren’t finding alignment and appreciation in our lives, then we are doing something, maybe a couple of somethings, that keeps us from feeling better.

I’d often wondered what I was doing. I probably even wrote it down in hopes of finding the answer. I think I know now what it was!

So I’m going to set an intention to no longer repeat, rehearse, or reiterate problems and negative points of view, especially not to write them out and give them so much attention.

That in itself is a very encouraging and hopeful thought: that I have learned something after all. Not simply another run through the cycle of analysis and flawed conclusions, but a substantial change that brings relief and helps me feel better.

The Thinking trap for INFPs (Melancholic-Phlegmatic)

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

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

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

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

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

Being a problem-solver

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

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

Thinking too much

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

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

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

INFPs aren’t Thinkers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more authentic self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want answers? Learn to ask the right questions

My latest article on MercatorNet explains how to use some key philosophical skills to solve problems in your own life:

“How can I lose weight?” might be the burning question that comes to mind, but that doesn’t mean it is the right question to ask or answer. Most of us “know” how to lose weight, after all. We just have to consume less energy than we expend.

Yet that answer would not satisfy most people. So at this point a philosopher might suspect you are asking the wrong question.

How do we find the right question? How do we, as Bacon put it, question prudently?

Reading the works of past philosophers shows that they spend a lot of time describing situations and problems prior to asking their questions. In other words, they provide context to their questions.

Rushing out and asking “what is the meaning of life?” presumes too much. It presumes we all know what the question means by “meaning” and “life”.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/want-answers-learn-to-ask-the-right-questions

 

The limits of non-fiction

The problem with my first attempt at writing  a novel was simply that it lacked meaning. It wasn’t meaningful enough for me to pursue it beyond the first five or six rejection letters and additional non-replies. I knew deep down that despite finding it interesting, enjoyable, and challenging, it had particular faults that stemmed ultimately from a failure to fully invest myself in it.

This is, I think, the most likely answer to the previous post’s question: why am I so conflicted about writing fiction? – a question I attempted to unravel through finding the essential value or purpose of stories or histories generally.

But on reflection, it turned out that what matters more than the essential purpose (there may very well be multiple non-essential purposes) is finding a single purpose that is sufficient to motivate me. After all, different authors have different reasons for writing, and all that matters in the end is that my reason is good enough to get the job done. And for me that means that the process itself has to be personally enriching.

A novel is a huge undertaking, and I don’t have the patience or the energy to write for the sake of merely completing the task. What I need is a purpose and a process that can sustain me through it, make me want to keep going, make me turn to fiction for nourishment or re-invigoration.

That purpose lies in the special nature of stories as opposed to non-fiction: I love that non-fiction lets me describe, analyse, and solve problems with as much clarity and wisdom as I can muster. But the fact is that fiction has its own power to solve problems, with a clarity and wisdom that is paradoxically both stronger and weaker than its more realistic counterpart.

Ideal non-fiction has the attributes of realism, certainty, and fact. It is direct and unadorned, making no attempt to hide the truth or to embellish it; relying only on what can be known and reveling in the clarity and openness of whatever it can grasp.

Fiction, on the other hand, is not limited to facts, certainties, or the real. It is entirely unreal, and accordingly imprecise; attuned as much to the wildest fantasy as it is to truth. It can grasp anything, but nothing of any substance. It is totally without the raw integrity of non-fiction – the constraints that make non-fiction relevant, that keep it grounded and useful.  Fiction is ultimately empty; the freedom from constraints equally a lack of discernible essence or identity.

Yet in this weakness lies also fiction’s strength. While non-fiction allows us to identify, analyse, and resolve problems, its power is really our own power, and we are limited precisely to what we can identify, analyse, and resolve for ourselves, using whatever reason and wisdom is at our disposal.  Fiction may be imprecise, but this is what makes it perfect for problems we cannot precisely identify.  Fiction may be as attuned to fantasy as to truth, but non-fiction cannot go far beyond the truths we already recognise and understand. Fiction may be empty, but its very emptiness allows it to soar far beyond the crawling limits of non-fiction’s methodological constraints.

What is of all things most yielding
Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.
Being substanceless it can enter even where is no space;

– Daodejing 43

The value of fiction, then, is that it alone can deal with the problems we cannot pin down, the challenges and themes of which we are at best only vaguely aware. Not every problem or challenge in life can be safely abstracted, intellectualised, and dissected under the light of day. In the dark there are dragons and monsters that can only be fought, treasures that can only be found, if we are willing to enter – even blindly enter – into the fray.

Dealing only with problems we feel we can understand is like only fighting battles we know we can win. It is safe, secure, and some would say wise. But much can be gained or lost in the space between what we know we can win, and what we actually could win if we fought for it. What is lost, above all, in limiting ourselves to problems that can be dealt with through careful analysis is the broader domain of our own selves. We are not simply analytical intellects. And though the whole of our lives, selves, and experiences may be intelligible, they cannot all be engaged or approached with the shining clarity of the intellectual problem-solving mind.

For me, the appeal of non-fiction is that it can draw the entire world and reality itself into my intellectual domain. The challenge represented by fiction is to drag me out of that very same domain, that safe and comfortable fortress, into the broader, wilder, more mysterious world beyond.  It’s no wonder then that I have both resisted and yearned for it, knowing that there is more out there, but unwilling to put aside the obvious power and clarity of the intellect.