Just one look

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I came across this website recently where a guy put forward what we might call a quasi-spiritual theory and practice.

His theory is that all our psychological unease and strife is caused by a subconscious “fear of life”. This fear of life is linked into a desire to know ourselves as we are. I don’t know which comes first, the fear or the desire. It doesn’t really matter at this point.

We go looking for this ‘self’ everywhere…here we insert the usual spiritual story of seeking peace and happiness in material possessions or power or self-image.

The usual spiritual story would encourage us to look within to find our true self, and find in that all the happiness and peace we wrongly sought outside ourselves.

The problem with this approach is that instead of just looking inside and going “oh, there I am”, we implicitly reason that given how desperately we pursue happiness and avoid suffering in life, this ‘self’ we need to find must be pretty spectacular. It must be magnificent and intoxicating and profound in direct proportion to our desire for happiness and our aversion to suffering.

That’s where this “Just One Look” idea comes in. The guy who runs the site claims firstly that this “find your self” theme is not meant to be a mystical spiritual quest. It would probably be better presented as a simple psychological method. In fact he refers to the “fear of life” problem as a “psychological auto-immune disease” for which the act of looking within is simply “medicine”.

His method is, first, to recognise that you can move your attention around at will. Second, that you have a feeling of what it is to be “me”, a feeling that you can either discover directly just by looking for it, or indirectly by going to a normal childhood memory and remembering what it felt like to be you at that time.

This feeling of “me” is not mysterious or esoteric. It’s pretty straightforward and we typically take it for granted, chasing after emotions and external or internal stimuli.

But according to the theory, this “me” feeling is what we actually desire. It’s something that never really changes, and once we look at it with our attention (intentionally, I presume), it sets in motion a gradual but more thorough psychological change.

As far as I can tell, what happens is that when we look at that feeling of “me” while understanding that this “me” is the antidote to the fear of life, all our fear-based psychological habits become superfluous. They don’t vanish overnight, but their motive force – the fear – no longer has such power because you now know that this “me” is your unchanging and consistent internal reference-point.

Anyway, that’s how I see it. It has a great deal in common with elements of spiritual practice in Vedanta and Buddhism. And to be fair to the ‘spiritual’ side of it, spirit and soul are proto-scientific terms. Psychology is, after all, the logic of the soul.

In Vedantan or Buddhist terms, I think this little method is picking up on the theme of misidentification: that we wrongly identify with impermanent or illusory things, whether they be ‘external’ like reputation, career, etc., or ‘internal’ like positive or negative emotions, thoughts, intellectual process, etc.

Some methods teach us to disidentify or ‘see through’ those objects, those false selves or idols. Others focus on finding the ‘true self’ within. But as the author notes, this has accrued a great deal of spiritual baggage along the way.

It is my experience that there is one desire that drives us all and that is the desire to know what I am. This desire, in most lives, for most of the time, is wrongly understood and projected upon objects of acquisition or aversion. It is projected upon objects of acquisition like relationships, power, money, position in the herd, education, and understanding. The seeking after understanding as a way of quenching the thirst of this desire to know what I am is a huge mistake. The nature of this desire is denied, is unrecognized. It is not recognized to be the desire to know what I am but it is easy to see it in operation, as we are continuously trying to understand our story, to put it in a good context, to fix it, to shape it, to get rid of the things that cannot be if I am to be what I must be, in order to accept myself.

The endless effort to run the memory tape of my life, so I have a consistent and coherent structure that I can call “me,” which, of course, always fails. Moment to moment, it fails. This story about what I am, the story that entails and incorporates all of my emotions and feelings, unconscious urges, the things that I do in the world, the things that I have done, even the thoughts that come to my mind, this is an endless backbreaking doomed-to-failure effort to provide a structure, a face, a shape that is stable and safe, and that I can say, “That is me.” There are always these things about me popping up, that I have to say “It’s not me.” But that is the desire that drives it all and the culture is porous to this reality. It shows up all the time. “Be all that you can be.” “That is not who I am.” “Let me be who I am.” It is porous to the understanding of what is really driving us.

Even so, it’s very easy for people to pick up this non-spiritual theory and turn it into another spiritualised practice. I can see traces of it already, where people grab hold of key phrases and imbue them with significance that says implicitly “If I can just follow this practice, then I will be happy”. It’s entirely possible to fall into the trap of thinking “If I can only realise that happiness is not contingent on anything, then I’ll be happy!”

It helps that the guy putting forward this theory does not have the usual trappings of a guru or cult-leader. It’s very easy to not be invested in something I’ve just read on a website written by some American guy I’ll never meet.

Maybe that’s why it worked: there’s no implication that this “me” you need to look at is esoteric or religious or whatever. It’s just a psychological base that, when identified, provides stability and a frame of reference to undercut our hyperactive and otherwise all-absorbing emotional and cognitive states.

It’s like discovering that you don’t drink enough water…and then a bunch of other issues and behaviours turn out to be caused by moderate dehydration.

I would say that “fear of life” is likely derived from the sense that life’s fluidity and unexpected changes can profoundly effect us. The sense of “me” is like a built-in safety-mechanism that prevents us from being totally overwhelmed or overrun or changed. But like any safety-mechanism, it can’t reassure you if you don’t know it’s there.

Who’s afraid of the MBTI?

Dtcwee posted this video along with an interesting set of questions in response to the previous post on Temperaments and the MBTI:

I think this is the first time you’ve touched on both the Four Temperaments and the MBTI.
The poetic way the Temperaments are described makes the MBTI dry and pseudo-scientific in comparison.
You may find it interesting that Briggs originally had four types (meditative/thoughtful, spontaneous, executive, and social) which she mashed up with Jung’s four cognitive types (thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition).
This raises for me the following questions:
Do Temperaments appeal to different people than MBTI? And if so, then to who and how?
What is it with the number four? Don’t they know it’s super-unlucky? Can’t they just, like the Yi Jing, have inferior and superior?

Do Temperaments appeal to different people than MBTI? And if so, then to who and how?

It’s hard to say. The Temperaments are not as widely known as the MBTI. They’re popular in different circles, partly indeed because the MBTI can be presented in a pseudoscientific form, whereas the Four Temperaments are an anachronistic protoscience.

The Four Temperaments are named after bodily humours, a remnant of their origins in Galenic medicine: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.

The MBTI types are presented in quasi-binary digital form, as acronyms reminiscent of modern medical, governmental, and technological contexts, like how the NSA could tell I have ADHD simply by monitoring my ADSL.

If you read much of the press on the MBTI, you’ll soon discover that it is extremely popular in the corporate world, and almost equally unpopular in the academic world. That is, no one takes it seriously in academic (or clinical) psychology, yet Human Resources departments love the stuff.

Why? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because corporations are intrinsically fascist, and love the idea of being able to administer a test to find out your intrinsic suitability for any given role? It reminds me of Brave New World:

Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse.

Or maybe the MBTI was just in the right place at the right time to become the reigning personality theory of the corporate world? It must have seemed very scientific and objective when it first appeared, and to be honest there’s not really anything more robust to replace it.

In terms of genuine psychology, the Big Five are robust, but don’t operate in the same way…they might be reliable markers of personality, but what people really want from the MBTI and the Temperaments is a deeper understanding of themselves and others. They want a theory or a model that lets you extrapolate from the observable, rather than merely measure the observable.

I find the MBTI exhausting at a certain point, and I can’t quite tell if it’s because the model overreaches itself  making predictions or deductions it can’t support, or (in MBTI terms) if it’s because the system and its presentation are so counter-intuitive.

That’s one way of interpreting the ‘dry’ aspect you noted: for an Intuitive type, the MBTI has some glaring faults in its presentation…or at least the way it is usually presented by enthusiasts online or in grueling HR glad-handling sessions.

Can you pick, for example, the irony implicit in arranging a whole-day team meeting to learn about the MBTI and discover your and your colleagues’ types? It doesn’t matter how earnestly you assert that all the 16 types are equally special, when the organisation itself is heavily slated toward particular types.

We introverts did manage to get the highly extroverted HR lady to admit that the organisation itself favours an EST perspective: extroverted, sensing, and thinking.

Likewise, the presentation and systemisation of the MBTI do not seem to sit well with the Intuitive function. There’s a disjoint between the presentation and the underlying principles that is either arcane or just clumsy.

Ideally, the four letters in the acronym would have equal weighting, right? But the I/E is about your overall orientation, the S/N and T/F are about cognitive functions, and the P/J is about the orientation of those functions.

That’s why rationalist (NT) types online will encourage people to forget about the labels and instead focus on understanding the functions.  Because if you just study the labels and their descriptions you’ll only get a superficial understanding of the whole system.

To be continued…