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.

A fifth temperament?

So apparently in the late-twentieth Century a husband and wife team set out to create a:

scripturally based therapeutic procedure that would produce effective, positive, and more immediate results with those needing guidance/counsel.

Along the way, Drs Richard and Phyllis Arno discovered the existence of a fifth temperament which they named “supine”.  I’ve come across this innovation a couple of times in the past, and the other day a reader expressed some surprise that I haven’t mentioned it on my blog. I promised to do a post on it after I’d done a little more research, and accordingly, here are my observations of the fifth temperament.

While Wikipedia has an entry on “five temperaments” there is little information on the concept beyond the Arnos’ work, which appears to be focused on their own enterprises in the US. I’m not hugely familiar with the intricacies of protestant Christian denominations in the States, but I did find that the Arnos not only run, provide certification in, and charge for reports from their Arno Profile System, they also founded and run the National Christian Counselors Association which provides training and certification for Christian Counselors, in association with various tertiary institutions.

As far as I can tell, this is the sole origin of the “fifth temperament” idea.

How does it relate to the traditional four temperaments system? Is the fifth temperament a genuine discovery?

As readers may know, the traditional temperament theory is a two-factor system. That is, each temperament is a combination of two variables: excitability and the duration of impressions. Cholerics are excitable with enduring impressions, Melancholics are not excitable with enduring impressions, Sanguines are excitable without enduring impressions, and Phlegmatics are neither excitable, nor do they form enduring impressions.

The Arnos also utilise a two-factor system as the basis for their temperament theory, but instead of excitability and duration of impressions, they utilised the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation system or FIRO-B, created by William Schutz in 1958.

The FIRO-B is two-factor in that it measures expressed behaviour – how much a person expresses to others – and wanted behaviour – how much a person wants from others. These two factors are applied across three domains of interpersonal need: inclusion, affection/openness, and control.

The four temperaments were at some point mapped onto Schutz’s system. This is not unusual, people have done the same with the Myers-Briggs types. And while directly correlating “expressed behaviour” to excitability and “wanted behaviour” to duration of impressions is not self-evident, the first problem to capture my attention lay in the inclusion of “moderate” categories along with the high/low dichotomy.

In the traditional temperaments theory, it was accepted that a person may be more or less melancholic without this signifying a difference in temperament. The four temperaments are extremes that can be combined, but also present to greater or lesser degrees.  Two pure cholerics can differ in the degree of their choleric tendencies. From the humourist perspective this could be understood as a person in whom yellow bile predominated, but with the caveat that yellow bile could still predominate to varying degrees.

For some reason, the FIRO-B describes the phlegmatic as having moderate expression and moderate wanted behaviour. This decision establishes a gap for a fifth temperament in the FIRO-B system. By contrast, the traditional system has no place for an “in between” temperament. Such an in-betweener would be perfectly balanced, an ideal balance of the four humours, a perfectly healthy human being.

The decision to create a space for a moderate temperament in the FIRO-B is not simply an error. Rather, it shows the disparity between the two factors of the traditional model and those of the FIRO-B. They may have some similarities, and they may result in similar temperament types, but ultimately they are different models that just happen to coincide at key points.  Excitability is not the same as expressed behaviour, and endurance of impressions is not the same as wanted behaviour.

In fact, if we examine more closely the combinations of the two factors within the different systems, it turns out that a direct correlation is not even possible. The FIRO-B shows the melancholic temperament as having low expressed and low wanted behaviour. But in the traditional system the melancholic has low excitability but “high” endurance of impressions.

One of the particular merits of the traditional temperament system is that it reduces aspects of personality to fundamental biological constraints. Excitability and endurance of impressions are not concepts, but facts of individual biology; tendencies towards degrees of expressed and wanted behaviours is, by contrast, highly conceptual and dependent on additional levels of theory about behaviour and social interaction.

Whatever its actual merits, the five temperaments theory is giving a different meaning to the traditional vocabulary.  It is therefore not accurate to say that a new temperament was discovered in the late-twentieth Century, but rather that a new system emerged and took on some of the language and concepts of the traditional temperaments theory.

This is not a big deal; there are a plethora of personality theories out there, and ultimately what matters is whether they are useful to people.  These systems are all imperfect ways of cutting up reality to make it easier to comprehend. However, it is good to be clear about the provenance and limitations of the theories we use. No one owns the traditional temperaments theory, but those of us who find it useful have a role to play in researching and understanding it, and laying out its strengths and limitations for others to see.  Avoiding confusion with new theories that use the same terminology is part of that role.