What are you trying to prove?

Dtcwee wondered in response to my previous post:

If proving something to others is unnecessary, I wonder what the blog post is for then.

To be honest, the question struck me as a non sequitur.  There are plenty of reasons to write blog posts besides trying to prove something to others. Wanting to communicate something to an audience is not the same as trying to prove something.

In the previous piece I had written:

I need to advance on the basis of what I know to be true, not on the basis of what I can prove to others

And I went on to provide the context of “theoretical certitude”.

If you replace “prove” with “show to be theoretically certain” in my statement, the meaning will become clearer. Yet if we do the same with dtcwee’s comment, his argument presents an obvious problem.

We could formulate it as follows:

1 Zac says he needs to advance by what he knows to be true not by what he can prove to others.

2 But writing a blog post implies trying to prove something to others.

3 Therefore, Zac either wants to prove something to others and is contradicting himself,

4 or writing a blog post is not always about proving something to others.

It’s tempting to read dtcwee’s comment in the context of the vernacular “prove something to somebody”, meaning:

to substantiate a claim about something to someone; to make someone believe or accept a statement about something.

By this interpretation, one could argue that everyone who publishes online is trying to prove something to somebody, though it may not always be conscious or obvious.

I might be trying to prove to people that I am a deep and thoughtful person, and strive to do so by writing cryptic or convoluted posts. I might, right now, be seeking to prove to people that I can be analytical and logical.

Nonetheless, this is not the interpretation of “prove” that I was using, as illustrated by my use of “theoretical certitude” in the original post. If we factor my meaning into the 4-point formulation above, we quickly spot the error at point 2:

2 But writing a blog post implies trying to show that something is theoretically certain to others.

It should be clear that theoretical certitude is a degree of proof far removed from idiomatic uses like “what are you trying to prove?”.

This kind of misinterpretation is known as equivocation, with wikipedia offering the following example:

A feather is light.
What is light cannot be dark.
Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.

It’s a common problem in argument or debate, and that is why philosophy requires us to define our terms at the outset.  Dtcwee took my use of the word ‘prove’ and treated it according to a different definition.

But that’s not the end of it. Quite apart from the equivocation, I’m curious as to why dtcwee implicitly believes that publishing a blog post denotes trying to prove something to somebody.

I suspect the answer lies (conveniently) in one of my favourite topics: temperament.

The four temperaments see the world differently, have different values, motivations, and perspectives. And this may be as good a time as any to introduce a slightly different take on the four temperaments – the Keirsey Temperament Sorter.

I won’t go into the background and details, but what the American psychologist David Keirsey has done is to group the famous Myers-Briggs personality types into four groups which correspond to the traditional temperaments.

keirsey

Here we can see that the main difference in MBTI terms between the Rationalist (Choleric) and the Idealist (Melancholic) is their Thinking and Feeling functions respectively.  The Rationalist makes decisions based on “objective observations and factual analysis in any given situation”.  Strategic and goal-oriented thinking comes naturally to them.  As such, a Rationalist is predisposed to look for the strategies and goals underlying the behaviour of others.

By contrast an Idealist makes decisions on the basis of his feeling, which is just as obscure as it sounds. An Idealist is not precluded from making objective observations and factual analysis, but at the end of it all, he will make a decision based on how he feels. It is hard to describe, but just as thoughts may be true or false, so things can feel right or wrong. Things that feel right usually point toward meaning, purpose, identity, authenticity, and other ideals.

When I write, I almost always do so for the sake of ideals. I write to uncover meaning, I write with a goal of authenticity, and I write to establish and clarify my own identity for myself. These are all fairly self-absorbed purposes for which an audience is nonetheless important firstly because it imposes a discipline and a rigor that might otherwise wane, and secondly because ideals shared and communicated are thereby strengthened and clarified.

At least, that’s the ideal.

What my blog posts are for is primarily to discover something for myself through the creative and expressive effort. Half-formed ideas can expand, or collapse under their own weight. Intuitions can be tested. Ideals can be explored. If it’s of benefit to anyone else, that is a wonderful side-effect. But if I tried to think strategically about it, my motivation would shrivel up and die.

The Keirsey system offers a different perspective on the temperaments by aligning them with the Myers-Briggs functions. However, in so doing it brings forward other more refined possibilities. 16 types are more particular than four temperaments, and there’s a risk of getting lost in the minor details of the MBTI.

One of the reasons I like the temperament theory so much is that it is imprecise. It’s rough around the edges and barely doctrinaire, in a way that perfectly suits our imprecise nature. So I don’t take Keirsey dogmatically.

That said, there are interesting questions to consider and explore in detail: such as the shared intuitive function of Cholerics and Melancholics that makes them in many ways so similar.

Or the ‘slowness’ of both the Melancholic and the Phlegmatic perhaps arising from very different causes: the obscure strangeness of feeling in the one, and the introverted sensing in the other.

Likewise the excitability of Cholerics and Sanguines is, in Keirsey’s arrangement, most likely due to the powerful thinking function of the former, and the extroverted sensing of the latter.

Going further, you could explore some of the nuances of interaction between the different temperaments, such as why Cholerics often make Melancholics uneasy. I suspect it’s because despite sharing the same or similar intuitive function, Cholerics are quick to think in directions that don’t feel right to the Melancholic. Likewise, Cholerics may get frustrated with Melancholics whose rambling observations and insights never get to the damn point….

 

Melancholic resentment

One of the drawbacks of studying religion at an early age is lacking the maturity or the intelligence to distinguish between personal conditions and universal ones.

For instance, all the religious traditions of which I am aware are pessimistic about worldly goals and prospects. Whether it’s being crushed beneath the wheel of samsara or being dashed to pieces in the shipwreck of worldly desires and cares, our religious traditions use pessimism to encourage us to find the permanent, unchanging spiritual centre of all existence.

We are not supposed to take this pessimistic view as a justification for resentment, a sardonic defence against feeling let-down by life or the people in it.

Resentment is a particular risk for Melancholics. As Conrad Hock writes:

The melancholic who gives way to sad moods, falls into many faults against charity and becomes a real burden to his fellow men.

a) He easily loses confidence in his fellow men, (especially Superiors, Confessors), because of slight defects which he discovers in them, or on account of corrections in small matters.

b) He is vehemently exasperated and provoked by disorder or injustice. The cause of his exasperation is often justifiable, but rarely to the degree felt.

c) He can hardly forgive offences. The first offense he ignores quite easily. But renewed offenses penetrate deeply into the soul and can hardly be forgotten. Strong aversion easily takes root in his heart against persons from whom he has suffered, or in whom he finds this or that fault. This aversion becomes so strong that he can hardly see these persons without new excitement, that he does not want to speak to them and is exasperated by the very thought of them. Usually this aversion is abandoned only after the melancholic is separated from persons who incurred his displeasure and at times only after months or even years.

d) He is very suspicious. He rarely trusts people and is always afraid that others have a grudge against him. Thus he often and without cause entertains uncharitable and unjust suspicion about his neighbor, conjectures evil intentions, and fears dangers which do not exist at all.

e) He sees everything from the dark side. He is peevish, always draws attention to the serious side of affairs, complains regularly about the perversion of people, bad times, downfall of morals, etc. His motto is: things grow worse all along. Offenses, mishaps, obstacles he always considers much worse than they really are. The consequence is often excessive sadness, unfounded vexation about others, brooding for weeks and weeks on account of real or imaginary insults. Melancholic persons who give way to this disposition to look at everything through a dark glass, gradually become pessimists, that is, persons who always expect a bad result; hypochondriacs, that is, persons who complain continually of insignificant ailments and constantly fear grave sickness; misanthropes, that is, persons who suffer from fear and hatred of men.

I’ve been looking into resentment recently and the definition I like best so far is that:

Resentment is a mixture of disappointment, anger, and fear.

At times any one element of the mixture might predominate, but the heart of the resentment is ultimately a sense of injustice – persistent and far-reaching enough to cause not only anger but disappointment and fear.

Failure breeds resentment when it not only feels unjust but also has implications for future hopes and prospects. Failure makes us angry at ourselves or others, it also disappoints us when we realise that the hoped-for success will not come, and it makes us afraid of future failures, or of the missed opportunity to succeed. It’s much harder to feel resentment if the failure doesn’t really hurt our future prospects.

The danger in becoming a pessimist is that we may roll all our small resentments into one big resentment against the world, God, or life itself. This is problematic partly because such a large and all-encompassing resentment is hard to bear and hard to escape or forget. But also because pessimism is often couched as a ‘realist’ perspective. Believing that one’s large, all-encompassing resentment is objectively valid only makes it harder to let go.

So what can we do about this resentment?

The best advice I have found so far (and it came easily, despite my pessimism) is that we need to recognise resentment as a form of addiction, that is, a compulsive activity we indulge in order to escape other feelings or experiences.

Resentment is addictive because it gives us a cheap sense of self-righteousness and vindication, or as the article puts it, an illusion of strength. After all, the anger component of resentment is classically defined as a desire for vengeance: that is, a desire to set right the perceived injustice perpetrated against us.

So long as we hold on to either anger or resentment, we feel that our cause is not lost. The perceived injustice might be decades old, but we can still feel that we are achieving some measure of vindication by remaining angry, where ‘forgive and forget’ feels too much like letting the guilty party off the hook.

Yet for that same reason, resentment is incredibly weak. It’s like saying to your oppressor “See? I’m still suffering for what you did to me!”  The emotional logic is childish: you made me feel bad, and I shall keep feeling bad until you realise your mistake. Naturally, it’s childish because most of us begin resenting people and situations in childhood, the same place we learn all our primary emotional responses.

It’s hard to remain resentful when you realise that you’re engaging in an adult form of sulking.

 

Philosopher rejects Orthodoxy, Christianity, all religion

Modern philosopher rejects Orthodoxy -> Christianity -> all religion as incompatible with philosophy:

“For these reasons I have come to regard religious commitment as incompatible with philosophy. The lover of wisdom, the philos-sophos, is one who never ceases searching and questioning, even if they become – like Socrates, the “gadfly of Athens” – irritating and infuriating, and are ostracised or condemned by their society. The life of the mind as practiced by Socrates is not well suited to church membership, or any religious affiliation for that matter other than perhaps liberal groups like Ikon. Institutional forms of religion, at least, will sooner or later put a stop to questions and demand answers, since it is the answers that define the boundary and identity of the group. For the philosopher, however, answers are always fluid and provisional; the only constants are the questions, and therefore the path to wisdom must be a solitary one.”

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/12/07/4367489.htm

Lengthy, but worth a quick read. I can sympathise with some of it, but the ultimate objections seem strangely facile.  The author, Nick Trakakis, is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Australian Catholic University where I was temporarily a PhD student.  I never met him, but had some brief interaction in an administrative context.

The comments are well worth reading. A sound reply comes in one of the early comments:

“(1) Weren’t all the “logical” problems with Christianity evident from the start? What makes them become at some point a sufficient reason for rejecting Christianity? What suddenly gives the principle of non-contradiction (so narrowly understood!) priority over the source of being and the apophatic way? What is the source and grounding of this logic and what are its scope and limitations? (2) Isn’t this rejection of Orthodoxy and Christianity and “commitment” for questioning inevitably a kind of exclusivism of its own? And doesn’t this exclusivism arise from a too logical-intellectual understanding of the very complicated ways our belonging to any religion or tradition is made up of practical commitments and systematic doubt and communitarian loyalties and more?”

More pithily:

“I understand your position, but do you? I am unsure as to how one reconciles the argument outlined in your paper, with your position as “Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University”.”

Okay, the comments are quite enjoyable:

“As for His Eminence or Blessedness or whatever-title-he-goes-by, Thich Nhat Hanh (whose picture has started appearing in Theology and Religious Studies Department almost by magic!): He is no LESS exclusivist than Timothy Ware in his outlook . . . which is why he’s a Zen Buddhist monk and not a monk of the Rule of St. Basil the Great. Please, read the work of inter-religious and ecumenical scholar Gavin D’Costa, who has already carefully demolished the myth that somehow pluralist views of religious truth are in some way not exclusivistic. They are — except, they’re couched in “pluralistic”-sounding jargon.

As for the conception of what Dialogue ought to be. Well, what a very EXCLUSIVIST definition. People come at dialogue from many different angles and with different motives . . . or, shouldn’t they? Not every person and group would accept that Dialogue is some kind of search for truths that each one’s religion doesn’t have. Why? Because some religions are based on the claim of an ultimate revelation (Christianity, Islam) or a special choice (Judaism) or of just having been around forever and from the beginning (Hinduism). Trakakis might know a lot about Orthodoxy; apparently, he doesn’t know so much about other religious belief systems . . . or, at least, he wants to collapse and crush them down into his pluralistic, open-ended view of Dialogue.”

Awesome:

“To sum: A philosopher on the payroll of a Catholic Institution publicly repudiates the Christian religion in particular for being intolerant towards the “true” (read – materialist) search for truth. He then, unsurprisingly, calls for a V2 ‘renewal’ within the Orthodox Church – all the while forgetting it is the traditional churches that are indeed regaining numbers (e.g. Latin mass communities). The author then styles himself as a lover of wisdom and compares himself to Russell and Socrates (an awkward cliche). All the while pushing a left-learning social philosophy. It’s just all so… typical.”

There are two very good replies on the site arguing that philosophy is not at all incompatible with religion, or rather, that Trakakis’ depiction of the interplay between religion and philosophy is by no means definitive:
http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/12/15/4372933.htm
http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/12/09/4368935.htm

I guess the moral of the story is that you can’t use “philosophy” as an excuse for ceasing to be religious. But perhaps there is something in philosophy that attracts people who are ambivalent about religion?

I can sympathise with this as someone who is and has been attracted to philosophy, or something in or about philosophy, and yet experiences great ambivalence about religion. I’d hate to end up a cliche of pluralism, and I’m yet to see depictions of possible pluralist principles that don’t make me cringe on some level. I hope it is not in vain to swear that I will never ever describe myself as “spiritual but not religious”.

Philosophy has given me a way of entering into religion, but it is not the common way. Indeed the “common way” is a stumbling block, and many of us attracted to philosophy are already quite uncommon by definition.  In some religions the peculiarities of a philosopher would find a welcome home. Variegation of spiritual practice and depth of understanding would be assumed from the outset. But in other religions, including Christianity, the merit of the philosopher’s approach is held in check by the assurance that God’s grace will flow not even to the humble and the poor, but primarily to them.

Christianity depreciates elitism. It specifically eschews great depth of understanding in favour of simplicity, because the work of salvation is not accomplished through human merits. In other words, the philosopher’s temptation to look down on the common folk with their obviously flawed ways of worship and prayer and theology is already marked out and condemned in the Christian tradition.

Which is not to say that there is no room for philosophy and theology and intellectual work in Christianity, just that it is as much an “extra-curricular” activity as sport, engineering, music, and mathematics.  “Philosophers are deeply holy people” said no one, ever.

There’s a famous letter written by a Zen master to a Samurai, in which the Zen master describes the deeper significance of the Bodhisattva Kannon – a kind of Buddhist “Goddess of Mercy” – who is sometimes represented as having a thousand arms and a thousand eyes:

The ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its thousand arms and its thousand eyes. The man of half baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have a thousand eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if now one understands a little better, he will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man or the slander of the other, and he will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing, manifests its principle well.

All religions are like this. I have seen that Shinto especially is like this.

The ordinary man thinks only on the surface. The man who attacks Buddhism is even worse.

Philosophers are not “ordinary men”, but I think it is a mistake to take “extraordinary” to mean superior, and, à la Trakakis’ non-exclusivist yearnings, it is a mistake to think that the philosophically-minded among us are implicitly further along some unnamed path than the hoi polloi who just live their lives all unexamined.

We cannot generalise about the inner lives of religious believers. While not philosophically, at least psychologically: what is “true” for me is not “true” for others. If liturgy or doctrine or devotion means nothing to you, isn’t it more befitting a philosopher to wonder why this is the case, how it could be different, to reconcile or at least comprehend the conflict between one’s own beliefs, desires, and sensibilities and those of others, rather than assert one’s own ambivalence, conflict, and doubt under the guise of some noble search for truth?

At risk of disappearing down a relativist rabbit-hole, I’ll extend this principle to Trakakis’ confession: I don’t know what’s going on with him, but personally I would feel it a cop-out to tell myself that I’m giving up on religion because the noble, questioning spirit of philosophy cannot bear the limitations of “creeds” and “faith” and the “exclusivism” implicit in believing something rather than doubting everything.

Maybe there is a place for people who for whatever reason cannot reconcile themselves with “organised religion”? But finding a place does not presuppose or require asserting one’s personal difficulties as objective reality. Being interested in philosophy does not demonstrate that one is closer to objective reality; it could mean one is simply more rigorously, more self-assuredly deluded.

Being a philosopher is not a sign of psychological health or good judgement. Feeling that one’s personal and professional interest is intellectually laudable can be a cover for an imbalanced and dysfunctional inner life, something that our religious traditions warn against.

My failures as a philosopher have at least the good fortune of keeping open the idea that my interest in philosophy, my thinking style, and my inexhaustible search for certain truths, are rooted more in negative personality traits than in “love of wisdom”.

But even this tentative position may be temperamentally determined. How typical for a melancholic philosopher to worry that their whole identity might be a feel-good facade to distract from profound personal failings. A choleric philosopher might have an easier time believing that their own peculiarities indict the rest of the world.

Anxiety and the Melancholic: part three

In part one we looked at the anxiety of a melancholic in a sanguine world, and in part two we covered the anxieties that arise from a melancholic’s mistakenly taking phlegmatics as a social model. Part three will examine anxieties that stem from the influence of cholerics.

So how does the choleric contribute to melancholic anxiety?

We saw in part one that our society is heavily influenced by sanguine ideas of fun and excitement. In a similar way, society is heavily influenced by choleric sensitivities toward ambition, power, and achievement.

Most people enjoy socialising to some extent, but sanguine influences shape our experience and understanding of what it means to be social, of how to be social. Likewise, everyone desires some degree of success in their efforts and exploits, to improve their position in life, to accumulate some measure of wealth; yet how we go about it is shaped by a variety of choleric influences.

The melancholic tendency to form and pursue ideals means that we idealise the choleric approach to ambition just as we idealise the sanguine approach to social life. And in a sense this is accurate: sanguines are the ideal socialites, cholerics are the ideal achievers; melancholics just need to learn that recognising an ideal does not mean we can or should achieve the ideal.

Cholerics are as diverse as any of the temperaments, but what they have in common is achievement and ambition as their primary motives. Cholerics are excitable and reactive like sanguines, but like the melancholic they form long-lasting impressions. This combination can leave cholerics with the impression that they’re the smartest guys in the room, and there’s some truth to this conclusion.

The excitability and reactivity of the choleric makes them far more sensitive to opportunities than the melancholic or the phlegmatic can ever be. Their enduring impressions give cholerics a long-term vision and a capacity for focus that sanguines typically won’t sustain.

Every “self-made man” story is most driven by a choleric temperament. But that’s not to say that every choleric will resemble a business tycoon. Even amongst the usual list of ambitious and successful businessmen (and women) there’s a diversity that reflects the range within the choleric temperament: flamboyant, viscerally arrogant men like Trump; quiet achievers like Gates; intense iconoclasts like Jobs; their success stories can differ wildly, and even the quality of their success may be open to debate, but they share an ambitious quality that, once you recognise it, is distinctly choleric.

Cholerics are successful across a range of endeavours. You will find choleric musicians, actors, academics, managers, bureaucrats, and of course, politicians.  Their particular combination of excitability and enduring impressions leads them to find the most advantageous position in any domain.  Put yourself in a choleric’s shoes:

Imagine you’re hiking with three friends and together you stumble across traces of gold out in the bush. You realise there may well be more gold in this area, and naturally you start considering whether you could buy the land or carry out a quiet survey, what exactly the logistics and possible returns on such a venture might be.  You decide to discuss it with your friends* but to your surprise your sanguine friend seems put off by the hard work involved. Your melancholic friend seems to like the idea of a gold mine, but doesn’t seem to realise that this is potentially what you are all standing on. Your phlegmatic friend is agreeable, but doesn’t really have an opinion on the matter. Since no one seems to be truly on board, you pursue it for yourself and become the proud owner of a literal gold mine.

*Actual cholerics may be wondering why you would risk sharing the gold mine idea with your idiot friends in the first place.

As per the example, cholerics are more ‘tuned in’ to the opportunities and advantages in life. Sanguines are (apologies) too superficial, while melancholics and phlegmatics are too oblivious.  It’s not that these other temperaments don’t want to be successful or that they can’t be successful, they just have difficulty pursuing success in the choleric way.

For these three temperaments, it might be better to say that they achieve success through doing what they love or enjoy.  Actually this is true of the choleric as well, they just happen to love succeeding, overcoming challenges, pursuing what they believe is worthy.  Unfortunately, the biggest defect of the choleric is an overestimation of their own worth. Feeling like “the smartest guy in the room” encourages a sense of arrogance, and cholerics are known to struggle with or succumb to a powerful pride.

So while it is true that the other temperaments often fail to see the opportunities before them, it’s also true that they tend to recoil from the ruthless and self-serving actions that are sometimes implicit in seizing those opportunities. Australian politics is at present exemplary of the dark side of the choleric temperament. Idealists need not apply, and thankfully the poisonous nature of the process is evident enough to dissuade most non-cholerics (and probably many cholerics) from getting involved.

For the melancholic, it is vitally important to recognise cholerics and the choleric influences in society, and to understand that we are fundamentally unsuited to the kind of life that puts ambition and personal advantage ahead of ideals. While all temperaments can learn from one another, with knowledge it becomes clear that choleric attitudes and strategies are simply not appropriate for the melancholic idealist.

For me this translates into the recognition that I am deeply averse to commercially driven activities. My idealism does not incorporate what I regard as a mercenary motive. Yet at the same time I know that such things simply do not seem ‘mercenary’ to a choleric, within reason. When I think of all the cholerics I have met or worked with, I know that their ‘successes’ would seem to me either empty success or even failures.  Yet there are other cholerics with whom I have a great deal more in common, whose goals are perhaps more idealistic in their ambit.

Regardless, it is a great relief for a melancholic to realise that many of our socially reinforced ideas of ambition and success simply do not apply to us.  We are idealistic rather than ambitious, or if you like, we are ambitious about our ideals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anxiety and the Melancholic: part one

I spent many years trying to rid myself of anxiety by different methods, both conventional and unconventional.

But I still suffer from anxiety, and honestly I don’t know if I will ever truly be free of it.  I will certainly never be “free” from anxiety in the sense of being able to live my life exactly as I live it now, but without any trace of fear or apprehension or stress.

That’s because my anxiety is, as best I can tell, the result of conflict between my temperament and my environment.  My temperament is melancholic, and my environment is ruled by principles, practices, and preoccupations that are, if not totally foreign to me, at least very low down my private list of priorities.

Melancholics are idealists. We seek the ideal in every situation, and we are prone to a kind of self-inflicted suffering when we cannot meet the ideal, or when the ideal seems impossible, or when we grab hold of an ideal that isn’t really authentic or reasonable.

Life is especially difficult if we do not recognise the nature of our own idealism, and how it differs (often profoundly) from the motives and perspectives of other temperaments.

Let’s look at one simple example of idealism that causes anxiety:

Imagine you have the ideal of the perfect host, someone who is always available to entertain and provide hospitality to everyone you meet, with a perfectly clean and beautiful home, and a ready supply of good food and drink.

Imagine that you somehow get stuck in the role of perfect host for your extended family on every major holiday and milestone.  Every year you inevitably end up hosting long lunches or dinners for a dozen or so people, who seem to take for granted that this is your role, business as usual.

Imagine playing this role for ten, fifteen, or twenty years; going through an annual cycle of stressful preparation, enduring the day itself, and collapsing in exhaustion after the last relative leaves.

In this scenario, the melancholic becomes a victim of their own ideals. They may not want to host the big family get-together. They may not even like such events regardless of who hosts them. But on some level they accede to ideals of family togetherness, being the perfect host, not disappointing people, and so on.

A melancholic caught in such a situation will feel increasingly burdened by their own ideals and their sense of others’ expectations. They will grow to resent each year’s calendar of events – however sparse they might be – but will continually suppress their resentment for the sake of their unanswerable ideals.

Anxiety in this instance may stand for a range of unpleasant feelings that leave the melancholic in the unenviable position of routinely forcing themselves to do things they do not want to do.

Clash of temperaments

We are all familiar with the cliche of artists or creators feeling compromised by commercial forces. We understand that artistic integrity is often at the mercy of finance, and this means that artists must learn to compromise in order to survive. But it can also mean that the best art, the best creations, even the best products are hidden from the mainstream.

The ‘artistic temperament’ has a great deal in common with the melancholic temperament, though not all artists are melancholic and not all melancholics are artists. But in terms of being idealistic, of having a vision of how things could be, the comparison is apt.

What makes melancholics unique is a combination of two basic factors: how excitable they are, and how long-lasting their impressions are. Melancholics are not easily excited by external stimuli, but they form very long-lasting impressions. Compare them with the other three temperaments:

Sanguine

The sanguine is highly excitable, but does not form lasting impressions. Sanguines are typical “party people” who love excitement, and can be quite emotional, but quickly and easily change their minds and their emotions. They typically like nice objects, and are motivated by having fun and engaging with others.

Phlegmatic

Phlegmatics are not very excitable, and also do not form lasting impressions. Phlegmatics are extremely easy-going, don’t like conflict, and are happy to either do their own thing or go along with the crowd.

Choleric

Cholerics are excitable and, like the melancholic, they form long-lasting impressions. They are typically ambitious and have a strong sense of self-worth. They like challenges, can be quite proud, and will gravitate toward leadership positions.

Anxiety as clash of temperaments

While the different temperaments can work well together, in the context of anxiety the melancholics is especially vulnerable to quiet conflict and struggle on account of the other temperaments.

If we do not recognise the significance of the different temperaments, we will make the mistake of holding ourselves to standards that do not apply, and create for ourselves ideals that are not truly our own.  Our society is more obviously shaped by the values and priorities of the other temperaments. A typical melancholic will look around at the rest of society and try to place themselves in it, without realising that what is most visible and obvious is, almost by definition, not appropriate for the melancholic.

Clashing with a sanguine

For example, a melancholic who grows up around sanguines will feel insufficiently sociable, unable to keep up with the high energy and excitement of the sanguine temperament. Our society is profoundly influenced by the “fun-loving” sanguine.  Media and advertising take advantage of their infectious enthusiasm, and reinforce the image of expressive, emotive, and exuberant personal style as a kind of ideal. Yet for most melancholics this ideal will simply be unobtainable. We do not have the kind of energy that a sanguine has. We are not immediately excited by large crowds, bright lights, and loud music. We are not energised by buying new clothes or a new car or going to see a new movie (unless these things accord with our personal ideals: the ideal clothing, car, or movie).

But there’s a flip-side to all this sanguine energy. Sanguines make quick, impulsive decisions, often without much forethought or consideration. They tend to change their mind easily, and necessarily back away from poorly-considered choices.  And while the sanguine can easily “get over” anger, sadness, and disappointment, sometimes we need to learn from these things before we let them go.

By contrast, a melancholic can’t help but dwell on anger, sorrow, and disappointment. We turn these troublesome and painful events over and over in our minds, often months and even years later. Like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go until every last bit of life has been drawn out of the painful or instructive memory; and even then we may return to it to rehash and recapitulate the lesson.

When a sanguine says “live life with no regrets”, they typically mean “try everything, don’t hold back, seize every opportunity, live life to the full.” When a melancholic hears “live life with no regrets” he slowly reminisces on all the stupid, embarrassing or foolish things he’s ever done. The melancholic life is full of regret – but it’s more the regret for the consequences of mistakes than for opportunities left unexplored.

Melancholics will experience anxiety if they fail to recognise the fundamental differences between themselves and the sanguines of this world. Trying to match sanguines, let alone beat them at their own game, is a recipe for melancholic exhaustion, fatigue, and anxiety.  I don’t think I will ever stop feeling anxiety in apprehension of some forthcoming social occasion. This is because most social occasions are slated toward the strengths of the sanguine temperament, where a love of crowds, genuine enthusiasm, and a short memory for embarrassment and mistakes makes the sanguine impervious to anxiety in many if not most social occasions.

So what is the solution?

Ultimately I think the solution is to be true to your own temperament. If you don’t enjoy sanguine social occasions, it’s okay not to go to them. A great deal of anxiety comes from forcing ourselves to do things we simply do not wish to do. Unfortunately, when we look at sanguines without understanding how they are different, we make the mistake of treating their unique features as ideals that we must simply strive to mirror. If I just try hard enough, I can be at ease in the purposeless social engagement I don’t really want to go to. If I just “let go” I too can find happiness in impulse-purchases of shiny consumer goods.  If I just get out there and have fun, I can forget about how someone’s behaviour is making me uncomfortable, or how I’m not entirely okay with the direction my work is headed, and so on.

These are false ideals for the melancholic. We have our own strengths and weaknesses, and while we can learn from the strengths and weaknesses of others, we must do so with awareness of our fundamental differences.  And when it comes to anxiety, remember that the other temperaments can suffer just as much as the melancholic does; it just happens that the other temperaments are quicker to realise what they do and do not like, and hence our society provides them with more obvious answers to their fears and desires.

Our society does not, for example, encourage sanguines to be less sociable, to live more simple, modest lives, and to sacrifice everything they enjoy for the sake of some deep and obscure ideal.  Imagine if society encouraged sanguines to take a vow of silence, to spend long periods of time alone, or to give up all their possessions, as strongly as it encourages melancholics to party, be heavily invested in social media, and accumulate pointless possessions.

Of course, melancholics do not want to become hermits either (at least not typically), and simply refusing to do anything that makes you anxious could end up making you more sensitive to anxiety and hence even more restricted in your routine. The solution here may be to recognise that the real cause of anxiety is not in going to some sanguine event, but in failing to conform to the sanguine attributes. The anxiety might come from the thought of being at such an event, and failing to be as sparkling, witty, extroverted, or fun-loving as the sanguine ideal tells us we ought to be.  Indeed, it is easier to not go to something than to go to it and be viewed as boring, tedious, too reserved or seemingly in a bad mood all night.

This happens, by the way. On the rare occasions when I have gone to an event and not tried to appear more expressive and excited than I was, I have typically been asked if I’m okay, if I’m sick, if something is wrong, or that I should smile more, have more fun, mingle more, and so on.  But if you are happy to go and just “be yourself”, then surely that is good enough? We can’t all be sanguines, and we shouldn’t have to pretend to be sanguine just to avoid offending or upsetting others. Yet after decades of being implicitly told that sanguines are the ideal for social engagements, it is hard to put down that mask.

For some of us, the mask is so firmly attached that we no longer recognise the difference between our true feelings and our learned responses, or between what we really want to do, and what we believe we ought to want to do.  In such cases, anxiety might feel inexplicable. We may not recognise the deeper conflict that is producing it, or the deeper nature onto which we are imposing more superficial demands.

I hope this description of conflict between temperaments is useful. In subsequent posts I will look at the conflicts that arise between melancholics and the remaining two temperaments: choleric and phlegmatic.

Feel free to ask any questions or seek further clarification; I’ll do my best to answer (because that’s what the ideal blogger should do!)

 

 

 

MBTI and the melancholic

Utilising Keirsey’s temperament sorter, we can associate the four temperaments with four groupings of the Myers-Briggs 16 types. This leaves us with four variants of the melancholic temperant, the ‘NF’ types, which for the uninitiated means types who perceive intuitively (N) and arrive at judgements based on feeling (F).

Melancholics are therefore Keirsey’s Idealist types. Idealism is key to the melancholic temperament hence my use of the term melancholic idealist.  In MBTI terms the melancholic idealist is characterised by his dependence on intuition and feeling, with variations according to which function is extroverted, and whether the individual himself is introverted or extroverted.

For example, for NFP types the perceiving function (intuition) is extroverted – directed to the external world. For NFJ types the judging function (feeling) is extroverted. But even so an NFP or an NFJ may be Extroverted or Introverted, which is to say that they will be more closely attuned to their Extroverted or Introverted functions respectively.

What does this look like?

An ENFP and an INFP have the same arrangement of functions – introverted feeling (written as Fi) and extroverted intuition (Ne). But because the ENFP is overall an extrovert, their Ne plays the dominant role in their type. As introverts INFP types are dominated by their Fi.

As an INFP I find some benefit in the description of these functions and this type. For example, it is true that my life is dominated by Feeling. Not other people’s feelings, but my own, hence the ‘i’ for introversion. Having introverted Feeling as one’s dominant function is a bit like living in a house with no roof where you can’t help but be forever conscious of the weather, of which way the wind is blowing.

Extroverted intuition is like having odd or unusual patterns, resemblances, and associations constantly springing into one’s mind.  It’s partly reflected in my love of analogies, though the analogies can become stretched and strained beyond their use.

But as an INFP I can only take this kind of Myers-Briggs talk in small doses. MBTI is, after all, a very Te way of looking at things, that is, an extroverted Thinking approach, cutting up all of humanity into 16 interchangeable boxes.

Extroverted Thinking does not come naturally to me, though I can use it when motivated, when it serves some higher aim, and in fact have become so good at it that on tests my Thinking and Feeling scores vary by only a few points.

But beyond the narrow limits of extreme utility, I find Te tedious, boring, soul-destroying even; and hence I soon grow tired of reading Myers-Briggs material.

In addition, for some reason the MBTI or Keirsey’s interpretation give the impression that the melancholic idealist might find answers, understanding, and hence fulfillment. Perhaps this is implicit in its systematic Te design?

Whatever the reason, reading MBTI stuff leaves me Feeling like I’m on the verge of a discovery: if I just try a little bit harder I’ll surely break through and get the answers I so desire.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the dynamic that so dogs and distresses the melancholic idealist, and we should be wary of things that feed our idealism by offering the appearance of final answers.

This is what I love so much about the four temperaments theory and its depiction of the melancholic. As Conrad Hock writes, the melancholic must learn to love suffering, because the reality will always fall short of his ideals. Or to put it another way, we long for a perfection and a finality that cannot be met in this world.

I think this is especially harmful for the INFP whose judging function and overall orientation are so introverted and subjective. The INFP is especially prone to a kind of idealistic inflation where ideas of perfection can become ever more tantalising yet ever more elusive at the same time.

The melancholic benefits from understanding that idealism will never be wholly satisfied in this life, and a certain degree of suffering or dissatisfaction will always accompany us.

The paradox is that if we accept suffering and indeed learn to love it, we may find ourselves far happier than if we embrace an ideal devoid of suffering. I think this is why spiritual principles of inversion are especially suited to the melancholic: He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. Or the Daoist passages I’ve often quoted:

What is most perfect seems to have something missing;
Yet its use is unimpaired.
What is most full seems empty;
Yet its use will never fail.
What is most straight seems crooked;
The greatest skill seems like clumsiness,
The greatest eloquence like stuttering.
Movement overcomes cold;
But staying still overcomes heat.
So he by his limpid calm
Puts right everything under heaven.

Thus the melancholic description – unlike the MBTI – describes the plight of the melancholic idealist in its entirety and offers a solution, perhaps the only real solution, which is to make the melancholic entirely aware of his own plight and to transcend it. The melancholic can thus idealise the non-ideal and find a kind of peace in a humble perfection.

This is not what some people might call “being realistic” or accepting imperfections, or being pragmatic. It does not drag the idealist “into the real world” but draws the real world up into the rarefied atmosphere of the ideal.  It reconciles “heaven” and “earth” but like the cross, what seems like the destruction of the former turns out to be the sanctification of the latter.

The ideal approach

Melancholics are idealists, and in any venture or activity we seek out and adhere to the ideal.

This can be both an advantage and an obstacle. For example, I mentioned in a previous post that I always thought the ideal approach to exercise would be to incorporate it into everyday life, avoiding ‘exercise for its own sake’.

What I neglected in this approach is that such an ideal may not be attainable given the circumstances of a contemporary lifestyle, but also that people do in fact ‘exercise’ for fun and enjoyment. People run, ride, walk and play sports because it is enjoyable. But if you presume at the outset that exercise is onerous and pointless exercise is adding insult to injury, then this insight will evade you.

Growing up with numerous vague and confounding frailties of posture, coordination, physical tension, fatigue and other interrelated yet undiscovered obstacles may have contributed to this blind-spot toward exercise. On my better days it is obvious that exercise is enjoyable. But most days merely remaining upright is enough of an effort to make exercise seem implausibly demanding.

Nonetheless, since I started jogging regularly I’ve noticed a number of minor improvements, but more pertinent to this post, I found myself once again inclining toward the ideal – idealising the difficulty and purity of running or jogging as a simple and complete form of exercise.

What this shows is that ideals can be mistaken, ideals can be incomplete, but ideals can also be useful.

Perhaps it is best to consider ideals in this context: not so much as eternal and objective truths to be discovered but as a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding, communicating, teaching, and learning.

For example, I’ve been learning a particular martial art for about 16 years now, and for nearly half that time I was preoccupied – perhaps ‘obsessed’ is a better word – with finding a definitive copy of the names of the various moves in Chinese. My teacher’s generation were more focused on actually learning the art, and admittedly it seems a bit strange to feel that the name of a movement is in any way key to understanding or performing the movement. A fist by any other name will smack you just as hard around the head.

It’s only taken eight years for my enthusiasm to dim; hopefully in part as a result of improving at the art itself. But on reflection I can see that what I hoped to find in the names was not so much a better technical understanding of the movements, but a way of idealising them, of getting to their essence and encapsulating them.

It’s true that techniques are not definitive; they can be adapted, changed, put to multiple uses. But the mere fact that a technique has a name means that someone saw fit to name it in a particular way and denote from their own perspective what made this technique specific or unique.

In the 2005 doctoral dissertation of Jude Chua Soo Meng the author analyses the correlative theory of naming in the neo-Daoist philosopher wang Bi:

clearly for Wang, the names do in fact correlate to a certain actuality, a certain reality, and is not something which is random or frivolous. In his Laozi Zhilue, he presents explicitly the correlative theory of naming:

“All names arise from forms [phenomenal manifestations, (xing)]; never has a form arisen from a name. Therefore if there is this name, there must be this form, and, if there is this form, there must be its separation [fen] [from all other forms]. If “benevolence” [ren] cannot be called “sagehood” [sheng] or “intelligence” [zhi] called “benevolence,” each must have its own actuality.”

This passage clearly indicates that for Wang Bi names are not conventionally determined, but are determined depending on the shi [actuality/essence] of things, on which basis he can say that one cannot trade a name for another, since names have to accord with their actualities, and are determined by depending on these actualities, and not according to the fancy of the person. Again, names arise from xing, not the other way around, for “the name arises from how it appears to us” So in effect for Wang Bi the shi is manifested through the xing, and the names are determined according to the xing. Thus names ultimately are dependent on the shi through the xing, and the names are dependent immediately on the xing. Hence he can say that if there is this name, there must be this form (xing), since the form is the source of the name. Names come from somewhere objective, and this somewhere is the form.

What this describes is the creative process inherent in naming a thing. We look to the form, the form in turn is a reflection of the actuality or essence of the thing. Hence the name, deemed appropriate to the form yet also being mindful of the essence behind the form, is always in relation with the reality. No one names things arbitrarily, or rather, an arbitrary name is not a true name.

Chua addresses the allocation of arbitrary names in the context of conventions, drawing on Wang’s comments on ‘designation’ as opposed to true naming:

To accommodate this latter class of words which are conventional in order to distinguish it from the determination of names which follow from phenomenal manifestations (xing), Wang Bi calls it “designation” cheng:

“To name [ming] is to determine [ding] objects [bi]. To designate [cheng] is to follow what objects are conventionally called. A name arises from the object, but a designation issues from the subjective [wo].”

Now the designation is said to be subjective because when I designate something, I simply follow a convention and not the objective xing. Compared to naming, it appears that it is up to me (wo) that the designation is what it is; I am not immediately constrained by the objective form in the thing itself, as I would be in naming. After all, in choosing to adopt a conventional designation, I have implicitly chosen to follow convention even if the words fail to name or correspond to the phenomenal xing, if there is one.

In the context of martial arts, as someone who can’t speak Cantonese and doesn’t know the name of a technique, I am instead ‘designating’ a technique through the convention that has evolved in our practice. I can say to a newcomer “We call this move ‘jong’ or ‘kwan’,” but I can’t go beyond that to say that these are the techniques’ names or to explain their meaning in the context of a technique’s form (xing) or actuality (shi).

But the subjectivity of designations cannot be overstated. Subjectivity is not arbitrariness. We should be clear that designation is subjective comparatively, not absolutely. For despite its (comparative) subjectivity, designation for Wang is not divorced from objective reality simpliciter. It is only divorced from the objective reality qua form or shape. Thus he writes, “…designations do not arise without cause.”

Indeed, the designations used in our art are derived from oral repetition and aural impression of the actual names. The designations are far from arbitrary.

Nonetheless, to the original point: I realise now that my fascination with names is a function of idealism more generally. To know the name given to a technique by someone grounded in their practice and study is to have an insight into both the form (xing) and essence (shi) of the technique. It is a somewhat idiosyncratic way of making sense of the art, consolidating and encapsulating it, and translating it into the realm of ideas.

I can do things without an idealist approach, but idealism is my greatest strength, the way that makes most sense to me. While other temperaments are inspired by different aspects of life, the melancholic thrives in a world populated by ideals, and a life lived through them.

What makes you happy?

For melancholics happiness requires a reason.  We’re so used to circumstances not being right, not being favourable. We live in a habitual state of wary discontent as though things are not great, but they could get worse at any moment and we want to be prepared for when they do.

This habitual state of discontented wariness is so consistent that although it seems like a prudent response to one’s circumstances at any given moment, in reality it is just a default setting; a mood in search of a justification.If your mood remains unchanged despite the passage of years and unending variations in your circumstances, at some point you have to accept that the only constant is you; something in you or about you is determined to inhabit this mood and remain in it for your own, perhaps subconscious, reasons, or through the sheer inertia of past experience.

Either way, if you find over the course of years that you inhabit a negative mood regardless of circumstances, there is no real reason why you couldn’t instead train yourself to inhabit a more positive mood instead.  If you’re always feeling worried, independent of whatever is going on around you, then you might as well teach yourself to always feel relieved, since it clearly has no bearing on your actual circumstances or outcomes either way.

I know for a fact that when all my problems are solved, I’ll create new problems to worry about.  If I’m always looking for faults I’ll be sure to find them. But this experience of constant fault-finding is wearisome and unpleasant, and countless times in my life I’ve sworn I’ve had enough of it.

So in theory I’ve now had more than enough of it, yet it persists because I have never had the right combination of circumstances, motivation, and clarity to do something about it.  It is not sufficient to simply realise that there is something wrong with your attitude on such a deep level; the accretion of this attitude took many years and the retraining of it will likewise take consistent effort.

After all, your mood is more than just a state of mind, it is also deeply ingrained in your whole body.  Habitual muscular tension, poor posture, and a variety of biochemical processes interact with mood both passively and actively.  Depression might make you slouch, but slouching can also make you feel depressed.

Posture can be retrained, habitual tension can become habitual relaxation, so why can’t an habitually negative mood become an habitually positive one.  Ultimately if there is no real reason to feel bad, what more reason do you need to start learning to feel good – to feel happy for merely being alive, and to genuinely appreciate all the wonderful things in your life?

Stress and the melancholic temperament

 

Last week I was talking to a friend and fellow melancholic, stressed out in the middle of her Med exams, overwhelmed and fearing the worst.  Why do melancholics get so stressed and what can we do to alleviate stress?

Melancholics are always fearing the worst.  We’re haunted by thoughts of what could go wrong, as if by anticipating it we can avoid it.  But in practice we just end up plagued by worries, anxieties and an overriding pessimism.

It’s a lot like watching my toddler son in a new environment. I take it for granted that I have to watch him constantly. I literally cannot take my eyes off him for a moment. At the same time I’m hyper-vigilant for anything within reach that he might damage or that might damage him.

My wife is the opposite.  She finds herself easily distracted, and is often taken by surprise when our son reaches some precarious object or takes a tumble over an obstacle.

It’s not that she’s any less caring, in fact she’s much more caring than I am, but she doesn’t have the same lifelong practice of expecting things to go horribly wrong.

I’ve found I can’t really help it, but my mind is almost always preoccupied with thoughts of how things could go wrong, have gone wrong, or will go wrong. It’s partly a side-effect of trying to understand how things work: if you know how something works you’re immediately much more conscious of how it might cease to work.

But it’s also because melancholics are a little slower at forming impressions and reaching conclusions compared to some of the other temperaments. In practice it might mean that a conversation with a choleric, a sanguine or phlegmatic unfolds with the melancholic experiencing a definite but incomplete sense of something wrong with the other person’s logic or intentions.  It might take days or weeks for the melancholic to unravel the errors and clearly define the problems in the other person’s proposal.

This increasingly wary attitude to human interaction seeps into everyday life. Whether I’m driving, working, going to the shops, not going to the shops, talking to people, cooking, exercising, reading, or just sitting still – I can’t help but be acutely aware of the possibility of error, an awareness of all the possible threats, dangers or pitfalls in what I am doing, not doing, or planning to do.  The resulting hyper-vigilance is a little like having PTSD but without the flashbacks.

I’ve found it is possible to ‘switch off’ this wariness, but it requires a concerted effort. Doing nothing is hard work.

In times of acute stress it’s not the fear per se that makes life unbearable, it’s the effort to avoid the feared outcome within a condition of uncertainty.  What stresses us is the effort to, for example, avoid failing an exam when the precise requirements for avoiding such an outcome are unclear.  ‘Study hard’ is the obvious answer, but how hard is hard enough?  For a melancholic these situations become a terrible trap because we tend to err on the side of excess, downplaying the costs of stress, and demanding of ourselves an impossible effort as though feeling stressed and exhausted is itself the only valid evidence that we have worked ‘hard enough’.

Unfortunately this extreme and idealistic approach actually blinds us to more creative, considered, and efficient methods.  It doesn’t allow us the space to reflect on how best to prepare, and is especially difficult for young melancholics who are as yet unaware that their most efficient methods of studying might differ markedly from the mainstream approach.  It takes a great deal of experience before we learn to rely on our own idiosyncratic ways of learning.

The best way to make space for reflection is to embrace the underlying fear of failure: to identify the worst, most humiliating outcome, and embrace it as a possible reality.  If you fail your exams you will indeed be humiliated and set back a year, but as undesirable as such an outcome would be, it would at least bring certainty and with certainty an end to the stress.

Taking time to really face such fears soon shows that they are not as dire as they seem.  Remember: it’s not so much the feared outcome that causes stress, it’s the self-imposed effort to avoid the outcome without really knowing whether one’s efforts are efficacious.

Another way to diminish the uncertainty is to build a sense of context, or a set of parameters which might give at least an approximate sense of certainty.  For example, you may not know if you’ve studied hard enough to avoid failure because you expect that studying ‘enough’ should bring with it some magical sense of competence and sufficiency.  But you can start to build a context by asking yourself whether you have consciously chosen or allowed yourself to not study as much as you usually would, ie. are you slacking off according to your own usual standards?

Alternatively, you can imagine what it would be like if you were trying to fail.  How different would that be from your current level of work?  It’s often reassuring to realise that you would find it hard to do nothing; you would struggle to really give up and let yourself fail.

There’s a measure of self-honesty required here, but I think for melancholics self-honesty is not a problem, rather the problem is knowing what questions to ask ourselves, or the broader context we need in order to put our problems in perspective.

The ultimate perspective for a melancholic is the idea that we are all going to die one day, and that nearly every stress we face in life pales in comparison to our final destination.  As morbid as it might seem to other temperaments, the thought of death can help a melancholic regain a healthy perspective on otherwise stressful situations.  The fear of failing an exam is ultimately misguided once we realise that no exam result, medical or other career, nor most of the things that cause us daily anxiety and stress will matter at all when we are gone.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.

And:

Consider thyself to be dead, and to have completed thy life up to the present time; and live according to nature the remainder which is allowed thee.

As idealists and perfectionists, life for a melancholic is never straightforward or easy.  We need these creative and eccentric approaches to help us navigate a complex world replete with sources of anxiety and stress, a world increasingly dominated by the worst tendencies of other temperaments.

 

 

Discovering the New Age author within

In the past I toyed with the idea of becoming a ‘spiritual writer’ or producing self-help books, but held back because I thought it wasn’t enough to be able to talk the talk. I’ve since learned that actual virtue, enlightenment, or profound wisdom and compassion are not necessary; you only have to tell people that you have these amazing qualities, and maintain the appearance of having them. It turns out that the only obstacle to pursuing such a path is being able to live with yourself while you tell people things they want to hear in exchange for money.

When I was devouring religious and mystical texts in my youth the boundaries between mysticism and early New Age figures were quite flexible. You could go from reading books on Zen and Sufism to something on the ‘Fourth Way’ of George Gurdjieff, and assume he was someone who had followed the same path: studying diverse sects and texts and arriving at a method that captured the essence of a spiritual path without the pitfalls of ‘organised religion’. (It turns out that Gurdjieff’s students – in particular his female students – were less successful in avoiding the pitfalls of charismatic, idiosyncratic, sexually exploitative ‘spiritual teachers’.)

Likewise, many books on self-help and psychotherapy took inspiration from Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist themes, or from a kind of syncretic Jungian melange. Such texts were derivative of religious themes, and right or wrong, seemed sincere in their intent to go deeper into the nature of the mind and of reality. I read many such books, bringing an undergraduate philosophical approach to their logic and structure, keen to find any unique elements or novel perspectives that might shed light on my own experiences. Some of it was genuinely helpful, and quite amenable to an individual already committed to questioning and pondering the meaning of life and the nature of reality.

So when I read German spiritual author Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, I could see pretty clearly what he was doing. All the elements were there, if not quite of the “Hero’s Journey” then at least the “New Age writer’s journey”: a troubled youth, a period of intense questioning and despair, a plunge into ‘the abyss’ a la the Dark Night of the Soul, a return in the guise of the Holy Fool who sits on park benches in a state of enlightened bliss, a career dispensing wisdom that grows organically, and finally a book that hits the New York Times bestseller list after an all-important endorsement from Oprah.

In terms of temperament, Tolle would most likely be melancholic – an idealist shaped by his struggle with existential despair. In terms of provenance, the esoteric tone and content of Tolle’s work are reminiscent of his early theosophical influences, reportedly through the work of the German theosophist Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken.

Best described as “a sort of New Age re-working of Zen”, Tolle’s work has some interesting ideas in it, but if it weren’t for the Oprah endorsement might well be sitting in relative obscurity commensurate with the arcane tone of the book.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Eckhart Tolle. He looks like a mole that has just climbed out its burrow and is sitting, squinting and disoriented in the daylight. Others have described him as ‘elfin’, but I think the word they’re looking for is ‘gnome-like’.

As such, he lacks the choleric self-confidence of his New Age comrades, those who fall more in the ‘motivational speaker’ and ‘personal development’ categories. Writers and speakers like Dr Wayne Dyer, who counters Tolle’s depressed, esoteric, European persona with the broad openness and plain talk of an American self-made man. If Tolle is gnome-like, Dyer looks like he might eat a gnome. There’s nothing especially esoteric about Dyer’s work, and his focus on motivation, success, and opportunity with a spiritual vibe are well suited to an American audience.

I’m not suggesting that either Tolle or Dyer are frauds, but surely at least one of you reading can see how easy it would be to fake and embellish a rich spiritual journey, and begin projecting to others the kind of enlightened guru they want to see?

The public appetite for spiritual nourishment is unabated despite or perhaps because of the challenges to traditional Christianity in Europe, the US, and indeed Australia. I’ve seen first-hand that people can be astoundingly credulous, willing to believe anything that bears Oprah’s Imprimatur, while reserving their cynicism for the religion of their birth.

With an estimated net worth of $15 million and $20 million respectively, Tolle and Dyer demonstrate there is no longer any need to associate spiritual wisdom with temporal poverty. So do you want to become a New Age writer? The audience is willing to believe – you just have to believe in yourself.