Practicing happiness 07

The answers come when you surpass them.

When you feel good, answers come without effort.

Last night I managed to feel better by letting go of my old internal struggle, and within minutes I discovered something remarkable.

If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know I’ve been obsessed with mysticism for more than twenty years, and in the past week or so I’ve been writing about disorganised attachment.

So imagine how I felt when I came across this study into mystical experiences among people with disorganised attachment.

The paper argues that people with disorganised attachment have a propensity for mystical experiences due to trait absorption.

I just found my deeply personal lifelong efforts to transcend the paradoxical injunction of disorganised attachment written up in a Swedish psychology paper.

The authors are at pains to say this doesn’t delegitimise mystical experiences, in fact they argue it may be a worthy therapeutic goal.

For me it validates my deeply felt need for transcendence, and at the same time it helps me release that need a little.

Once again I credit my persistent work at feeling better for this insight. I can enjoy the insight because I feel better, not the other way around.

Temperament theory: does 5 = 4+1?

This is mainly for commenter Josh, who thinks that the addition of a fifth temperament is a positive innovation over the traditional four temperaments.

I’ve written previously about the “fifth temperament”, which is the invention of a husband and wife team of Christian counsellors, Drs Richard and Phyllis Arno.

My objection to the creation of a fifth temperament is that it’s essentially an entirely new system that nonetheless uses terminology from the traditional four temperaments system.

This isn’t unusual. There are potentially infinite ways to slice up personalities and categorise them and many people have interpreted and used the traditional temperament theory in their own ways over the centuries.

But it’s simply not the case here that five is the original four plus one. You can’t cut a cake into four pieces and then “discover” a fifth piece. All you can do is cut the same cake into five instead, but now all the pieces will be different.

But is five better than four?

In China they have five elements. The Big Five factors of modern psychology have five factors. Even Ancient Greek cosmology actually has five elements if you include ether. So isn’t five a more appropriate number than four for a personality theory?

If you feel that five is a better number than four, then by all means use five. But that doesn’t change the historical fact that the traditional temperament system has always had four.

Why assume that the Greek system should match the Chinese one? Why not the other way around? Perhaps the Chinese five elements hampered their interpretation of temperament? Maybe they should embrace the more parsimonious four elements with regard to human temperament?

As for the Big Five – it’s not a temperament theory, merely a measure of personality traits. It doesn’t mean there are five types of personality. I’d love to see research into different personality types based on various permutations of the Big Five, since that would more closely approximate the purpose of the Four Temperaments theory. What I have found so far are people attempting to match the Big Five factors to MBTI functions: intuition seems to correspond to Openness, for example.

Regarding the Greek fifth element: according to wikipedia

“[in] ancient and medieval science, aether (Ancient Greek: αἰθήρ, aither), also spelled æther or ether and also called quintessence, is the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere.”

Aether was not part of the terrestrial sphere, perhaps why it was not included in the makeup of human temperament or biology.

Four is better than five

Four is better than five because it can be reduced to a two-factor analysis. Occam’s Razor inclines us to accept the more parsimonious solution.

The thousands of years of temperament observations continued into the modern era with various attempts at identifying the underlying biological basis of temperament and the high point of this research came with Jakob Henle’s proposal that temperament was reducible to inherent qualities of the individual nervous system: the relative ease of nervous excitability versus the duration of this activity.

Excitability and duration of impression provide a parsimonious two-factor biological basis for the four extremes of temperament:

Choleric – excitable with enduring impressions

Sanguine – excitable with fleeting impressions

Phlegmatic – unexcitable with fleeting impressions

Melancholic – unexcitable with enduring impressions

By contrast, the Arnos’ five temperaments theory evolved from the FIRO tool developed by William Schutz

based on the belief that when people get together in a group, there are three main interpersonal needs they are looking to obtain – affection/openness, control and inclusion

I have no strong opinion on the FIRO tool, but it should be obvious that it’s attempting to measure complex behavioural traits in interpersonal contexts. According to wikipedia, Schutz himself did not think the FIRO should be used to determine personality type:

Schutz believed that FIRO scores in themselves were not terminal, and can and do change, and did not encourage typology; however, the four temperaments were eventually mapped to the scales of the scoring system, which led to the creation of a theory of five temperaments.

The Arnos are the ones who mapped the four temperaments onto the FIRO tool, and subsequently decided a fifth temperament was necessary.

It’s a personal choice

People who like Arno’s theory might well argue that the creation of a “supine” temperament better or more usefully describes a group of people who were perhaps previously included as a subset of melancholic or phlegmatic.

But it could equally be due to a weakness in the original FIRO tool, or the fact that the FIRO was a much broader attempt to explain or quantify all human interaction, not to simply describe temperament.

Regardless, the so-called “Five Temperaments” is an amalgamation of the FIRO tool and the four temperaments concept, but should be considered a deviation from the traditional four temperaments framework.

Ultimately, it’s up to you if you want to subscribe to a particular theory of personality or temperament. But it’s also good to know what you are actually subscribing to.

I’ve found the four temperaments theory to be extremely powerful in categorising and understanding people. But at the same time, there are many superficial and inadequate renditions of the four temperaments out there. I can understand why some people might think the four need amending or supporting with other theories or tools.

I wouldn’t go so far as to innovate a new temperament, but I’ve found great benefit from Keirsey’s bridging of the four temperaments with the MBTI functions. Even so, there are aspects of Keirsey’s work that I don’t use. I use the MBTI to flesh out or add more detail to the four temperaments’ foundation. I don’t try to alter the four temperaments on the basis of the MBTI.

If anyone wants to argue that the “fifth temperament” is a legitimate and organic development of the traditional four temperaments theory, I would challenge them to present a case.

Thus spake Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson is in Australia, and my editor asked if I could explain the psychology professor’s global appeal:

Jordan Peterson is much more than an impassioned participant in the PC cause célèbre, and those who went looking for more information on the humble professor who sounds not unlike a Canadian Kermit the Frog soon uncovered a wealth of content…

Peterson turned out to be a charismatic and impassioned lecturer drawing upon his expertise in psychology, his ambitious yet idiosyncratic ambit in mythology, literature, religion and philosophy, and undoubtedly his many years of clinical therapeutic work to exhort his students and viewers to take responsibility for the meaning in their own lives.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/thus-spake-jordan-peterson

There’s always more to be said, but I’m particularly glad my Nietzsche and Kermit intuitions bore fruit!

Your world is a reflection

I came across a Goethe quotation:

All that happens is symbol, and as it represents itself perfectly, it points to the rest.

Which, if I’m right, is close to my own observation that all the elements of my experience reflect meaningfully my own inner life.

Chasing it down, I came across this book which seems to affirm my interpretation of the quotation, adding another from Coleridge:

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem

Symbolical, one mighty alphabet.

I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions that my experience mirrors, reflects, or symbolises my “inner world” for want of a better term. Accordingly, attempts to change the outer world without changing the inner world tend to fail.

We can end one relationship and end up in another just like it. We can sell a house with too many limitations and find that our new house has its own limitations that elicit the same unhappy feelings in us.

Except they don’t elicit those feelings, they mirror them.

I’ve been reading a bit of “positive thinking” and “law of attraction” material, looking for further insights into this pattern I’ve discovered for myself.

Much of it concurs in practice with aspects of contemporary psychology and philosophy of mind. There are also overlaps with religious philosophy and theology, which is not so surprising considering that these “New Thought” movements grew from Christian roots.

What I’d like to do with this post is clarify my own perspective, combining things I have read and things I have observed, for the sake of improving my own experience.

What’s going on?

As stated above, my experience or “outer world” tends to mirror and reflect my “inner world”.

This reflective quality lies in the emotional salience of experiences conforming to the emotional register of my inner world.

For example, I’ve struggled for years in learning a martial art. The outward struggle to learn the art corresponded to negative emotions in my inner world.

The conventional view is that I felt bad because I couldn’t practice the way I wanted to practice or achieve my personal goals.

But the truth is that both the outer experience and the inner emotion were a reflection of my own thoughts about training, martial arts, my self, and my personal goals.

Thoughts and emotions

Your emotions are a natural response to your thoughts or beliefs.

We feel fear when we think something bad is happening or about to happen.

We feel sorrow or sadness when we think something is wrong and we can’t fix it.

We feel anger when we think something has been unjustly perpetrated against us.

We feel love when we think something is good, in proportion to its goodness.

We feel joy when we think those good things are present.

Conventional psychological therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy attempt to teach people to challenge and correct their thoughts and beliefs and thereby reduce anxious and depressed emotional responses.

But conventional methods tend to focus on the truth-value of thoughts. The idea is that external reality is prior; our beliefs should accord with external reality. People suffer anxiety and depression because they have developed unhelpfully negative thoughts that do not match external reality.

This approach has a lot of merit. But in a modern psychological context mental health and mental illness are largely determined by one’s capacity to function in everyday life. Many people fall through the cracks because they are able to function, even if they are not happy.

For a melancholic especially, this idea of making one’s thoughts more realistic is liable to increase rather than decrease depressed and anxious emotions. A melancholic can’t “realistically” live without idealism and meaning, yet that idealism and meaning is implicitly rendered subjective and arbitrary by a “realist” approach to cognition.

People are afraid of being “unrealistically” happy. But that fear is itself a response to thoughts about reality coming back to bite you in the arse because you were feeling undeservedly happy.

Getting past the emotion-thinking circularity

The better “law of attraction” material, such as Abraham/Esther Hicks, focuses not so much on “how to get your stuff”, but on how to change your thoughts consciously in order to enjoy a better emotional state, with the subsequent promise that external circumstances will shift accordingly.

Hicks refers to emotions as a “guidance system” that helps you determine whether or not a particular thought is in alignment with your “inner being” or “Source energy” or God, and hence also in accord with your genuine desires.

Hicks emphasises that the point is to feel good or feel better, not to be realistic or true. If given the choice between a “true” thought and a thought that feels good, we should choose the latter over the former.

There’s merit to this advice, because our capacity to determine the truth-value of our thoughts is tenuous in the first instance, and even more so when we are experiencing negative emotions.

So focus on thoughts that “feel good” or “feel better” at least, and as a result you will begin to feel better and eventually feel good. As you begin to feel better, the thoughts accessible to you will also change for the better, creating a virtuous circle of better feeling thoughts.

But for people who are accustomed to suppressing emotions, there’s a heightened risk of simply overlaying negative emotions with positive ones, or further suppressing negative emotions.

That’s why Hicks advises not to attempt to change one’s emotional state too rapidly. You can’t go from depressed to joyful in an instant.

Care is warranted, and for me it helps to get away from the circularity of assessing thoughts by how they feel, in order to accomplish a change in feeling.

One way to diminish this circularity is to recognise that we can’t control our feelings. Our feelings or emotions change automatically. For me, this mirrors my realisation with weight loss: body weight is an indirect outcome of food intake and exertion. Being overweight should not be viewed as a problem, because it is (in most cases) a natural and healthy response to unnatural and unhealthy behaviour.

By analogy, we should not view our negative emotions as bad or problematic. Our negative emotions are good and natural and healthy, assuming they are in response to negative thoughts and beliefs.

What this means is that we can let go of the fixation on how we feel, trusting that our emotions will take care of themselves provided we take care of the thoughts we are thinking.

How do we assess thoughts?

If that is the case, the question then arises: how do we assess our thoughts if not on the basis of how they feel, or their purported truth-value?

In mysticism we see an especially melancholic impulse to take the highest and most profound spiritual state, and from that stand-point resist any lesser thoughts.

This is presented in some sects as taking up the deeper states of meditation and carrying them into everyday life. In Christian mysticism it is the spirit or Christ in us that purifies and transforms the “outer man” and the external world.

In the Hicks material, better-feeling thoughts are implicitly closer to the perspective of our “inner being” or “Source” or God. In light of this, we can suggest two approaches to assessing and changing one’s thoughts: by ascending step by step according to which thoughts feel better, or by finding an approach to a transcendent, numinous spiritual state, and letting that state transform or repel incommensurate thoughts.

In fact Hicks does suggest both approaches, ranging from working to improve one’s thoughts on specific subjects, to focusing on subjects that are already informed by positive thoughts, to finally meditating without thought in order to have no resistance.

It’s plausible that different personality types or temperaments may find different approaches more conducive. Regardless, I have to admit that my all-or-nothing tendencies and my past interest in mysticism incline me to some form of the latter option.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”

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.

Being less agreeable and more 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.

A brief history of temperament

The four temperaments theory is the oldest and most consistently utilised theory of personality in the Western world.

Its origins lie at least as far back as the 5th Century BC when Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, described human health and composition in terms of four humours or bodily fluids: blood, bile, phlegm and black bile.

The four temperaments were further developed and codified by Galen, personal physician to Roman Emperors in the 2nd Century AD. Galenic medicine remained the authoritative medical paradigm in Europe until the 18th Century, and his texts were still studied as late as the 19th Century.

But even as Galen’s theories about the human body were slowly discarded, his observations of the human mind continued to fascinate philosophers, physiologists, and psychologists even to the present day.

What underlies temperament?

Various theorists have attempted to define the temperaments in terms of more basic physical elements.

Galen described them in terms of heat and cold on the one hand, and moistness and dryness on the other. The Choleric is hot and dry while the Melancholic is cold and dry. Sanguines are hot and moist, while Phlegmatics are cold and moist.

But with the advances of medicine people have sought to describe the temperaments in ever more up-to-date terms, corresponding to changes in medical or psychological paradigms.

The 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant described the temperaments in terms of either feeling or activity that was short-lasting or long-lasting.  A Choleric is characterised by long-lasting activity while a Melancholic has long-lasting feelings. Sanguines have short-lasting feelings and Phlegmatics have short-lasting activity.

A generation later the German “father of psychology” Wilhelm Wundt described the temperaments in terms of either strong or weak emotion and slow or rapid change. Cholerics have strong emotion and rapid change, while Melancholics have strong emotion and slow change. Sanguines have weak emotion and rapid change, and Phlegmatics have weak emotion and slow change.

Another 19th Century German, the physiologist Jakob Henle, suggested that the temperaments might arise from the inherent activity or tonus of the nervous system.

Henle described each temperament in terms of the speed and the duration of reactions within the nervous system. Cholerics have quick reactions of a long duration while Melancholics have slow reactions of a long duration. Sanguines have quick reactions of short duration, and Phlegmatics have slow reactions of short duration.

The famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov also studied the nervous system and he too drew on the ancient four temperaments to frame his theories.

For Pavlov the Choleric has a strong but unbalanced nervous system while the Melancholic has a weak nervous system. Both the Sanguine and the Phlegmatic are strong and balanced but the former is fast while the latter is slow. Though his studies focused on dogs, Pavlov applied his observations to humans also:

The melancholic temperament is evidently an inhibitory type of nervous system. To the melancholic, every event of life becomes an inhibitory agent; he believes in nothing, hopes for nothing, in everything he sees only the dark side, and from everything he expects only grievances.

The choleric is the pugnacious type, passionate, easily and quickly irritated. But in the golden middle group stand the phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments, well equilibrated and therefore healthy, stable…

The phlegmatic is self-contained and quiet, – a persistent and steadfast toiler in life. The sanguine is energetic and very productive, but only when his work is interesting, i.e., if there is a constant stimulus. When he has not such a task he becomes bored and slothful.

The psychologists

While the physiologists were studying nervous systems and linking their findings to the four temperaments theory, the new field of psychoanalysis founded by the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud approached the same questions of personality and temperament from a more psychological, clinically-oriented perspective.

Freud’s collaborator and contemporary Alfred Adler developed a personality theory that mirrored the four temperaments system.

Adler described each type or temperament in terms of high or low energy and high or low social interest. Adler’s Choleric equivalent has high energy and low social interest while his Melancholic equivalent has low energy and low social interest. Sanguines have high energy and high social interest, while Phlegmatics have low energy with high social interest.

Other psychoanalysts broke away from the four temperament model as they delved deeper into their own theories and observations. Carl Jung, for example, described a more complex range of cognitive functions and mental predispositions that were later codified into the famous Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the most popular personality theory in operation today.

Yet the four temperament model was not entirely forgotten. It was retained primarily in the work of the psychologist Hans Eysenck, who described the four temperaments in terms of extroversion and neuroticism. Extroversion refers to how outwardly oriented a person is, while neuroticism is defined as a tendency to worry, anxiety, frustration, moodiness, and jealousy.

In Eysenck’s model the Choleric has high extroversion and high neuroticism while the Melancholic has low extroversion and high neuroticism. The Sanguine has high extroversion and low neuroticism, while the Phlegmatic has low extroversion and low neuroticism.

Temperament today

Modern trends in psychology and medicine make researchers wary of trying to match their research to pre-existing ideas and concepts like the four temperaments.

Contemporary psychology does draw on the concept of temperament, but it avoids the original four in favour of a research-driven approach. Psychologist Jerome Kagan is one example of an influential researcher on temperament, demonstrating throughout his career that key biological/behavioural traits in infants persist throughout adult life.

Kagan’s work focused on high and low reactive children, and he acknowledges that there are many other ‘temperaments’ or aspects of temperament yet to be studied.

Conclusion

For a lay person like me, learning about these different theories and approaches to the four temperaments adds to the sense that there’s a central phenomenon behind the archetypal four, and help us clarify exactly what the differences between them are.

As Kant wrote:

In this way the ancient forms can be preserved, and only receive a meaning better suited to the spirit of this doctrine of temperaments.

I still believe that Henle’s two-factor model of excitability versus duration of impression is the most fundamental, yet it helps me to have the others available too.

How better to explain a melancholic than “low energy, low social interest”? That’s me in a nutshell.

Other theories may seem more or less apt, but at the very least they show how different people have perceived the temperaments. We can also see where they have gotten it wrong, describing temperaments in ways that don’t at all accord with our experience, or letting their own temperament blind them to the true nature of the others.

Towards a spiritual psychology

I’m very slowly working towards a kind of spiritual psychology or anthropology, based on my reading and experiments over the years.

I hope it will take into account all the variables in my past experience: dealing with things like depression and anxiety, mysticism, cognitive and emotional states, and temperament.

It will be at heart a pragmatic approach, aimed at overcoming the suffering in my own life, and exploring the promises made by various religious teachings about the availability of love, joy, peace, and even bliss in this lifetime.

For me ‘pragmatic’ means I have a goal in mind. I didn’t go looking for answers out of simple curiosity, but because I sensed there was something wrong but had no idea what, how, or why.

So my approach will probably not appeal to many people, just as I’ve failed to find answers in the many popular approaches, theories, and methods available at present. The reason I haven’t become an exponent of any particular system or teaching is that no system or teaching has proven sufficient for me.

A quick sketch

Consciousness is something special.

In some religious systems, consciousness itself is considered divine – part of, or even all of God, right at the heart of your existence.

In others, consciousness is “close to” the divine, and is considered the “true self” or soul, in contrast to the false self, the ego, the accumulated thoughts and impressions that we usually treat as our self.

We could spend a lifetime trying to resolve and explore these theoretical differences, but remember this is a pragmatic effort. Regardless of the exact descriptions or definitions, consciousness is “special” in a good way.

The significance of consciousness is much more obvious in an Eastern context than in a Christian one, but we must bear in mind that the word “consciousness” has only recently been taken to mean what it means in this context. As “a state of being aware” it dates back only so far as the 18th Century.

Years ago I went looking for Aquinas’ perspective on consciousness, but couldn’t find it for the simple reason that Aquinas lived in the 13th Century, and for him conscientia would point to conscience, not consciousness.

In fact conscious is just a derivative of conscience. Both come from con meaning ‘with’ and science meaning “knowledge”. We could just as well say conscient instead of conscious, as in “are you conscient right now?”

The light in the darkness

In the context of mysticism, the specialness and significance of consciousness has been captured in the term “light”, as in “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”, which is not only a powerful spiritual statement, but also a pretty neat summary of contemporary philosophy of mind and the “hard” problem of consciousness.

Likewise: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”

We tend to think of evil deeds in concrete ways, as specific actions that contravene divine law.

But in the broader spiritual context it is clear that everything we do is corrupt and insufficient. It is ‘evil’ in a broad sense, and pragmatically this means our efforts are incapable of overcoming suffering or bringing us the happiness we seek.

We needn’t feel condemned for our actions, it’s enough that our actions cannot redeem us. Futility is an evil, just as much as malice.

The evil of human actions encompasses everything from the murderer and rapist all the way up to the proud and spiritually-barren Pharisees. That’s why Christianity presented such an apparent inversion of the moral order – because it doesn’t matter how well-behaved you are if you still have no love in you.

Some people think that light and darkness are metaphors for good and evil. I think it’s the other way around, in the sense that good and evil are ultimately grounded in light and darkness.

Light, love, and maladaptive defense-mechanisms

The ever-present light in us is also love, in that ‘light’ and love are attributes of God. Again, speaking pragmatically rather than seeking theological precision, this mysterious light by which we know the world and our own selves is also the source of divine love.

Yet instead of remaining in that love, we pay greater heed to the world, giving in to doubts and fears.

You can see this very clearly in children.

Young children are (all things being equal) loving towards their parents or caregivers. They give and receive love naturally.

Unfortunately, their parents and caregivers are not consistently loving in return. Our faults and foibles prevent us from responding to the love of our children perfectly.

Children experience this deprivation of love as a threat to their very survival. This makes sense on a biological level – since the child is entirely dependent on its caregivers for food, shelter, and security. But it also makes sense on a spiritual level, since we are told that love, light, and life all come from God.

In the face of this deprivation of love, the child invariably succumbs to doubt and fear, and immediately strives to regain the love it has lost.

This is the root of the problem: succumbing to doubt and fear, and thereby shutting down the immediacy of love in themselves, while then concluding that external conditions (the world) need to be controlled and rearranged before love can return.

In practical terms, this amounts to a child who stops experiencing love because of their parents’ implied or explicit rejection, and then seeks to find a way to regain that parental love and protect themselves from further harm.

The many layers of the psyche

Over many years of making psychological moves to avoid hurt and regain love, the child-teenaged-adult psyche ends up with many complex layers of beliefs, emotions, and choices that all originate in the choice of fear and doubt over love.

What this means is that in theory any of us can at any time feel divine love in our hearts. So long as the light (consciousness) is there, love is there as well. And the light is always with us.

But in practice our receptivity to this love is on a hair-trigger. We are ready to shut off the flow of love at the slightest hint of anything in the world of our experience that resembles the hurts, fears, doubts, and defense mechanisms that have shaped us over the years.

For example, many people develop perfectionist tendencies when young. Let’s say your parents were often depressed or angry, leaving them emotionally unavailable to you.

But then one day you get a good result at school or do well at sport, and suddenly your parents seem interested and engaged and proud of you. From your point of view, it’s as if they’ve said “Yes! This is the kind of behaviour and accomplishment we find worthy of love!”

Many children (depending on temperament and other circumstances) will form an intention to become as accomplished and successful as possible, because this is obviously what it takes to earn their parents’ love again. 

Conflating accomplishment and success with the supply of love is one cause of perfectionism.

Perfectionism can also originate in the inverse circumstance – where a child is told that they will suffer further rejection if they do not succeed in life.

Metastasizing fear

Becoming a perfectionist is one instance of a maladaptive response to fear and doubt. It’s mal-adaptive because it doesn’t really achieve the desired result (securing a supply of love) and it actually creates further conflict and harm.

Because after a while the child will begin to reflect on their perfectionist efforts. They will have further psychological responses to their perfectionism, such as: fear that they will not be able to achieve their goals, resentment that they must be ‘perfect’ in order to be accepted or loved, a sense of emptiness after finding that their accomplishments do not bring lasting rewards, and so on.

Again it depends on the child, but rest assured that they will make some kind of “move” to try to avoid further hurt and attain more love.

If, for example, the child feels insufficiently loved for their accomplishments, they will begin to feel angry and resentful at this injustice. Somewhere in the child’s mind they made an implicit bargain with their parents that they would be loved if they accomplished enough, or did as they were told, or didn’t rock the boat, or whatever particular issue first ruptured their sense of being loved.

But how will the child respond to these feelings of anger and resentment? Whatever they decide, it will be a choice that seeks implicitly to limit their hurt and attain more love, or as much love as they can hope to achieve in their circumstances.

These psychological developments go on and on. Some people have a few, others have many.

The more you have, the more likely you will develop outright internal conflicts between different “moves” or layers. Some people end up depressed or suicidal for no apparent external cause, because the layers of their own psyche create a kind of inner tension or turmoil that they don’t know how to resolve.

Finding the answer

That’s why the spiritual path is both simple and complex, easy and difficult.

The simple spiritual answers like “God is love” can be a source of great comfort, but not necessarily a lived experience. Can you just choose to be full of love, and then do it? Maybe you can, but many of us cannot.

So on the one hand we’re told that all we have to do is believe and we will be saved.

But on the other hand:

“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

Why this dichotomy? Because the simple truth is obscured by the many layers of our psychological defenses and accretions.

Defenses like turning to alcohol, sex, or drugs to try to relieve the inner tension, boredom, or suppressed pain which is in turn the outcome of other, more subtle defenses.

Defenses like intellectualising everything, shutting down emotionally, using dissociation or hypervigiliance to gain a sense of control over your own experience and environment.

Defenses like seeking out conflict and emotional turmoil, harming oneself or hurting others.

Nonetheless the answers are there.

The underlying, inescapable reality is light, not darkness, and it expresses itself in love, not fear.

Symbolism of posture

I’ve known for a while that there’s something wrong with my posture, but it’s only in the last year that I’ve resorted to learning basic functional anatomy to troubleshoot the problems for myself.

I’ve been learning about extension and flexion of the various joints, bony landmarks, specific muscles and their antagonists, as well as common postural deficiencies like forward head posture, excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine, kyphosis of the thoracic spine, pelvic tilt, rib flare, and so on.

There are lots of variables to examine and many of them are inter-dependent. For example: I started with the issue of rounded shoulders, which is really about protraction of the scapulae. I worked on trying to fix that for a while, but with limited success. Eventually I realised I was flaring out my ribs too much, which is really an issue of excessive extension at the thoraco-lumbar spine – the middle of the spine.

To correct the rib flare requires engaging abdominal muscles to pull the ribs down, but this in turn is not feasible unless the pelvis is correctly aligned. Anterior pelvic tilt tends to weaken the abdominals and the gluteals, while shortening the lower back muscles and the hip flexors.

By the time I’d worked all this out I’d forgotten about the shoulder protraction issue, so it’s come full-circle again.

Beyond anatomy

I think there’s also a symbolic or psychological aspect to these postural issues.

Posture is directly linked to the psyche in two main ways: first, we use posture to communicate with others. Defensive and submissive postures indicate to others that we wish to avoid confrontation. Hunching or rounding the shoulders, dropping the head, collapsing the chest all communicate submission by making us appear physically smaller and weaker.

Second, bad posture feels awful. It makes us irritable and stressed, takes more energy to maintain, and discourages us from the physical exertion required to accomplish daily activities and meaningful projects.

Forward head posture

So let’s take forward head posture as an example.

There’s a simple behavioural component, in that we spend a lot of time sitting at computers or staring at mobile phones or tablets. These activities tend to encourage forward movement of the head.

But moving your head forward to stare at the computer screen isn’t necessary. Perhaps it’s a by-product of intense focus, or maybe it’s a result of the conflict between a sedentary seating position combined with active visual attention.

Even before I began looking into posture I knew I had problems with my neck. It feels incredibly stiff at times, and occasionally it would ache from the tension. Symbolically, I used to relate this tension to my analytical and overly-intellectual approach to life.

I think a lot. I think about everything, all the time. 80-90% of my waking hours involve thinking about something, and this hasn’t changed in over a decade.

I’ve tried a lot of things to let go of this excessive intellection, but I’ve never found a simple solution. The complex solution has been to keep thinking about it, or at least try to improve the efficiency of my thinking in hopes that I’d eventually find the answer.

Trying to think of a solution to excessive thinking may sound counter-intuitive. As Maslow wrote:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

But if the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s not too outrageous to prioritise all your hammering tasks…maybe see how far hammering alone will get you.

Nonetheless, I can’t ignore the symbolism of forward head posture as a psychosomatic effort to lead with one’s head – putting one’s mind out in front.

And compared to what?

Well if I try to correct my head position, I immediately feel that my throat, chest, and whole torso are more open and exposed. That’s why dropping the head is a defensive position: better to get hit in the chin than in the throat.

If the head is associated with thinking, the chest or the heart is associated with feeling. Perhaps the symbolism of forward head posture is an attempt to use thinking, intellect, and analysis, to get out in front of feeling?

Melancholics are, after all, feeling-oriented. The effort to analyse life rather than feeling it directly is an established trope or cliche, and it makes sense that a feeling-oriented person would compromise their posture through such an effort. Feeling can be a confusing and seemingly ineffectual function. It gives long, slow answers when what we might prefer are short, convenient, and maybe conventional solutions. Feeling often points a direction with no hint as to the final destination.

We can easily blame behaviour for bad posture, and it certainly plays a role. But our psychology also makes us more susceptible to particular behaviours. Maintaining a postural deficiency takes constant effort, and trying to explain it as merely the outcome of certain behaviours like staring at a computer screen is question-begging. Why, after all, am I spending so much time happily staring at a computer screen if it is damaging my posture?

Looking at a postural problem in the broader context of one’s behaviours, psychology, and temperament can reveal symbolic relationships and even solutions.

Not that I found the solution by examining the symbolism, mind you. It’s eight to ten years since I first thought my neck trouble might be linked to my intellectual outlook, but the more I hammered away at that question, the more ingrained my intellectual efforts became.

It’s taken life experience, grudging and sometimes grueling lessons to reveal the real meaning and importance of feeling in my life, and how this mysterious function is to be embraced.

So now my old speculations about the symbolism of posture have come to mind, more like a memory or a realisation than a solution. The solution has happened on a deeper level, and now the recognition of it comes like an afterword, tying up loose ends when the real story is done.

 

On not knowing who you are

As children we accept at face-value the actions and reactions of those around us, those closest to us.

What does “at face-value” mean in this context?

It means we don’t consider the hidden motives, considerations, fears, and desires that might be influencing other people’s behaviour.

It’s no surprise that children don’t try to peer inside other people’s minds. Many adults don’t even try, and even trained psychologists can get it wrong, or be ineffectual.

Besides, we tend to assume that other people are like us on the inside. Young children are quite straightforward — for a child, face value is the only value.

The problem with this ‘face-value’ approach is that most adults are not straightforward. So, children are raised in an environment full of disparity.

There’s a disparity of information between the child who takes everything at face-value, and the adult who knows that life is complicated and long and everything has a backstory.

There’s a disparity of power, where the child is dependent on the adult for its very survival.

There’s a disparity of psychological formation, where the events and relationships the child experiences will inform its future with greater impact than the already mostly-formed adult.

In this disparate environment the child makes a serious mistake — it accepts the actions, reactions, and treatment of others as a true and honest reflection of their own existence, nature, and qualities.

We know ourselves primarily through our relationships, but children lack the experience and insight to understand that those relationships are imperfect and sometimes deeply flawed sources of knowledge.

It’s like trying to work out what your face looks like without a proper mirror to help you. So you look at whatever reflective surfaces you can find.

Other people can be very imperfect, very limited reflective surfaces. From them we try to piece together a self-image. But if we don’t know that these reflections are so imperfect, the self-image we infer from them will be horribly distorted.

Children who grow up with abuse, neglect, or dysfunction are often said to be damaged by their up-bringing, and in a sense that is true. But it’s important to also recognise the nature of that damage.

A significant portion of the damage is contained in a distorted self-image, inferred from a face-value perspective of their formative relationships.

Why is this damaging?

Because if the people closest to you — the ones who know you best — treat you badly, then the face-value explanation is that you don’t deserve any better than this bad treatment.

If the people closest to you betray, humiliate, threaten, or harm you, then either there’s something wrong with them, or there’s something wrong with you.

The truth is that there’s something wrong with them, but children lack the knowledge and experience to understand this. They take the other option by default, thinking that they must somehow deserve, or even inspire such awful treatment.

Imagine how awful that must be: to feel that the people who know you, the people you depend on, the only ones you can depend on, react with displeasure, anger, envy, ridicule, neglect, or a hundred other foul responses to you; and to have no other way to explain it than to conclude that these must be honest, authentic responses to who you really are.

The truth though, is that children do not inspire such responses from healthy, happy, sane people. Generation after generation act out their own damaged formation on their children, and the dysfunction is passed down like a curse, like original sin.

The fact is that most of us don’t really know who we are, because our self-image is inferred from our relationships with others, with the childhood assumption that the feedback we receive from others is honest and authentic.

It’s not.

People don’t really know you. And if your self-image is formed from their flawed and selfish responses to you, then you don’t really know yourself either.

Granted, there are moments of real knowledge and real insight and authentic relationship, but that doesn’t mean the whole can be taken at face-value, especially where there is abuse, neglect, and the kind of dysfunction we might only recognise as mature adults.

I think this is where the desire to know our real self, our inner self comes from. It’s a desire to break from the conventions and continuity that has shaped our false self.

Whether we intend it or not, this desire seems to lead to the deeper self-reflection of the mystics, sages, and saints. The people who have realised the falseness of their conditioned, inauthentic self-image and gone looking for whatever truth lies beneath it.

Incidentally, this is why orthodox Christianity teaches that Mary was preserved from original sin, kept immune from it. So pervasive is the effect of our inherited dysfunction that it required divine intervention to preserve a single human from it.

In this context, it implies Mary’s relationship with God preserved her from a psychological formation corrupted in untold ways by the defects of her own parents. Original sin is more than just bad parental modelling, but the two are intimately related in light of our relationship with God.

These ideas — inherited dysfunction, a false self, a true self, an unfulfilled relationship with God — put into context the need to be “born again” in the model of Christ. In that sense, the symbolism of the incarnation — God born as a child in the humility of a stable — represents the divine born in us.

We hear of being “born again in Christ” so much from a particular brand of Protestant culture, but the mystical tradition speaks of Christ being born in us. As Angelus Silesius, a Franciscan mystic and poet wrote:

“Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until He is born in me.”

 

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.