Choleric Villains: a Kung Fu Panda case study

Lately I’ve been thinking about and discussing the two basic types of choleric. I’ve also been watching a lot of Kung Fu Panda with my son. So let’s use the villains of Kung Fu Panda to explore the two types of choleric and how they function!

Tai Lung 

Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 feature well-developed villains with sympathetic origin stories.

The villain of KFP1 is Tai Lung, an orphan snow-leopard adopted and trained by Master Shifu in the Jade Palace, who so excels at martial arts that he and his teacher both assume Tai Lung will become the Dragon Warrior.

But when Grand Master Oogway decides Tai Lung is not Dragon Warrior material, Tai Lung is outraged. He goes on a rampage and is eventually defeated by Oogway and imprisoned.

In simple temperament terms, Tai Lung is clearly choleric.  He is proud, ambitious, confident, angry and vengeful against those who have wronged him.

He pursues his revenge with the determination and focus of a choleric, having already displayed extraordinary patience, biding his time until the opportunity to escape presents itself.

Having escaped, he immediately returns to his goal of obtaining the Dragon Scroll, convinced that he is – or deserves to be – the Dragon Warrior.

Lord Shen

Lord Shen, the villain of KFP2, is the scion of a family of peacocks who ruled Gongmen City and brought joy to the people through their mastery of fireworks.

When Shen begins experimenting with fireworks as a potential weapon, his parents consult a soothsayer who warns that if Shen doesn’t alter his course, he will be defeated by “a warrior of black and white”.

Interpreting the prophecy, Shen takes his army to wipe out all the pandas in China and thereby avoid his fate. On his triumphant return Shen’s parents are horrified and banish him.

Like Tai Lung, Shen is proud, ambitious, confident, angry and vengeful. He bides his time while further developing his explosive new weapons and awaits the opportunity to exact revenge (symbolically) against his now deceased parents, returning to his ancestral home before setting out to conquer all of China.

Using MBTI to unpack temperament

The similarities between Shen and Tai Lung as cholerics are obvious. Of course they are also villains, which makes the comparison very direct.

Disclaimer: Not all villains are choleric and of course not all cholerics are villains. But cholerics have qualities that lend them to being either great heroes or great villains….great anything, potentially.

But there are specific areas of difference between Tai Lung and Shen that can be observed in real-world cholerics too.

Power in oneself vs power over others

One of the most fundamental distinctions between cholerics is the nature of their ambition, which directly relates to their underlying skills or cognitive functions in an MBTI context.

Tai Lung is a skilled warrior. He is very nearly the most skilled warrior in the world of KFP1, which is the foundation of his pride and also the means by which he pursues his ambition to be recognised as the Dragon Warrior.

In MBTI terms, Tai Lung has introverted intuition (Ni). 

Like all the cognitive functions, it’s hard to understand Ni if you don’t have it. As a non-Ni user, the best I can grasp is that Ni-users intuitively know how to do things.

Intuition is simply unconscious mental processing. The difference between Ni and Ne (extroverted intuition) is that Ne unconsciously processes information and patterns about the external world, while Ni unconsciously processes the user’s own actions, skills, and “how to do things”.

Strong Ni users seem to have a knack or talent in at least one area, sometimes many. They know how to dress well and present well. They take to hobbies and skills with instinctive sureness.

They might not be able to explain to others how they know, because the processing is unconscious, but in art, music, sports, or martial arts, their skill is evident.

For an Ni choleric (INTJ or ENTJ) ambition is channeled through this innate facility.

Hence Tai Lung’s pride and ambition are all about his own excellence, being the best. In his own mind he is the Dragon Warrior, and therefore deserves the Scroll that promises to further enhance his already superlative skill.

Non-villainous cholerics with Ni might describe their ambition in terms of being the best they can be, or wanting to compete with themselves (as an INTJ friend put it).

After all, Tai Lung doesn’t want to conquer all of China, he just wants to be the best.

The kind of choleric who does want to conquer all of China

While Tai Lung is the embodiment of kung fu as an individual skill honed to near-perfection, Lord Shen will happily destroy kung fu in the pursuit of his own ambition.

Instead of the power within himself, Lord Shen cultivates power over others, beginning with his intuitive realisation that the fireworks created by his parents could be used for violence.

This detail of Shen’s origin story is a perfect clue to the kind of intuition he wields: extroverted intution (Ne).

Ne is all about patterns and connections in the external world. As an Ne-user I can fully appreciate Shen’s recognition that the explosive power of fireworks could be “repurposed”. NB: but as a melancholic the idea doesn’t appeal to me!

Shen’s power is almost totally externalised, as represented by the cannons he invented and the army of wolves and gorillas he commands. While he has kung fu skills of his own, they are clearly insufficient to achieve his true aims and ambition.

Lacking the innate talent of the Ni choleric, Lord Shen’s ambitions are not grounded in his own personal attributes. This is reflected in his willingness to destroy his own ancestral home in pursuit of something greater.

Instead of being motivated by his own innate skill, what motivates an Ne choleric like Shen is the self-evident truth that bigger is better:

Soothsayer: “Are you certain it is the panda who is a fool? You just destroyed your ancestral home, Shen!
Shen: “A trivial sacrifice, when all of China is my reward.

Yet at the same time, Shen’s Ne is apparent in his respect for the Soothsayer, a fellow Ne user whom he spares in part to prove her wrong, but also in recognition of her own gifts.

As a fellow Ne user, Shen is intrigued by the Soothsayer’s predictions and insights. He sends her away only when he is confident that his own path is certain.

The weakness of cholerics

In temperament terms, an Ni choleric would be choleric with a secondary temperament of sanguine, and an Ne choleric would have a secondary temperament of phlegmatic. But that’s an “all things being equal” scenario.

In practice we can see that different cognitive functions can be exaggerated or diminished through circumstances, formation, and our own choices.

Tai Lung’s excessive ambition was fostered by Shifu, his adoptive father and teacher. Shifu encouraged Tai Lung’s desire to be the Dragon Warrior:

Tai Lung to Shifu: Who filled my head with dreams?! Who drove me to train until my bones cracked?! Who denied me my DESTINY?!?

Things get a bit subtle at this point, but I think the “filled my head with dreams” aspect would relate to Tai Lung’s introverted Feeling function (Fi) in either a tertiary or inferior position; my guess would be inferior.

Fi is all about ideals, meaning, and “dreams”. But in an inferior position, Fi is very rudimentary.

At various stages in life our inferior function is more influential, and it’s common for people to suppress their dominant function and be driven by their inferior.

In Tai Lung’s case, that would mean his dominant extroverted Thinking (Te) was suppressed, and his inferior Fi was engaged and stimulated by Shifu’s excessive encouragement.

So when Tai Lung is denied the long-expected meaning of becoming the Dragon Warrior he is enraged and goes on a pointless and destructive attack on the valley, ending in his defeat by Oogway and imprisonment.

Living under the shadow of rudimentary Fi, he actually weakens his “efficiency”, his Te, and loses everything of value.

A healthier choleric would have had a clearer sense of his own goals to begin with. He would have found a different way to excel, even if that meant spurning the Jade Palace altogether.

Ironically his loss of control showed that he had less confidence in his own abilities, because he had tied them so strongly to the specific “dream” of becoming the Dragon Warrior.

The search for meaning is his downfall not only in this first instance, but in his subsequent effort to obtain the Dragon Scroll.

The weakness of Lord Shen

As an Ne choleric, Lord Shen has extroverted Feeling (Fe) and introverted Sensing (Si) in his tertiary and inferior positions; but in which order?

There’s a case to make for either option: ENTP or INTP. Honestly, I’m not sure which is correct.

But his character flaws certainly relate to extroverted Feeling, which is all about harmony with others. For Lord Shen it was his parents’ horror and rejection following his attempted genocide of pandas that scarred him. Shen thinks his parents hated him, and is unable to reconcile their repudiation of his actions with their parental love.

But even prior to the incident, it is curious that Shen didn’t buy into the foundation of his parents’ power – the colour and joy that their fireworks brought to the lives of ordinary people. If Shen had more well-developed Fe he ought to have been more appreciative of that relationship between his parents and their subjects.

The frightening aspect of Lord Shen’s Fe is that he massacred the pandas without realising the effect this would have on his parents, and without having previously heeded their worries and fears about his attempts to weaponise fireworks.

It’s suggestive of psychopathy – not only that he would massacre the pandas but more importantly that he would fail to understand his parents response!

What went wrong with Shen?

Unlike Tai Lung, there is no indication that Lord Shen was misled, or that his head was “filled with dreams”.

What seems more likely is his parents’ failure to properly educate their son and instill in him more compassion or care for others. By the time he was willing and able to massacre all the pandas in China, it was already too late in his development.

While this indicates a failure to develop Fe, it also suggests (or rather, my brother suggested while discussing this question) an Si-related failure to fill a young Shen with formative memories that would reinforce the virtues of compassion, benevolence, and mercy.

Shen’s attempt to use his intellect (Ti and Ne) to conquer China with gunpowder is a merciless and violent recapitulation of his parents’ “conquering” Gongmen City through the joy and wonder accomplished by their fireworks.

Without an appreciation for the happiness of the people and the virtues that go along with that, Shen would see his own path as a bigger, better, and more glorious version of his own parents’ success.

Cholerics in real life

Learning about the four temperaments helped me understand myself, but it also helped me understand how and why some people act like complete a***holes when it seems like they should (and maybe do) know better.

Cholerics in general are weaker in the “feeling” functions of the MBTI. In Big 5 terms, they are more “disagreeable” than “agreeable”.

Villains with troubled origin stories aside, cholerics tend to be proud, which they might prefer to describe as being objective about their own strengths.

For Ni cholerics, their strength is the innate talent facilitated by introverted intuition, coupled with extroverted thinking (Te) that helps them be very goal-directed and efficient.

For Ne cholerics, their strength is the systematic world-modelling comprehension of introverted thinking (Ti), enabled and given full-flight by extroverted intuition.

Being strong and disagreeable is advantageous if life is a competition. But cholerics struggle when they seek to “win” at non-competitive goals or attributes such as being agreeable.

A common trope for successful cholerics (villainous or not) is to reach the pinnacle of success only to realise that they have neglected or even harmed the things they valued but did not excel at.

That’s why the choleric “solution” is essentially a softening or slowing down where it might otherwise be easier for them to fight, compete, and perhaps win. It’s for cholerics, I think, that we have the spiritual advice to embrace weakness, meekness, humility, and poverty of spirit.

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Turning J and P on their heads

I’ve gone into a lot of depth in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, albeit haphazardly as befits a P-type, right?

But lately I’ve been looking at the simpler measure of the P and the J, and what that means for how we ideally function in the world.

I’m an INFP, who has ended up sharpening his J approach to life in order to “get s*** done!”, because if I stay in P mode I’m afraid life will just blend into some kind of seamless, mysterious whole without my understanding or control.

Actually that sounds kinda nice.

My wife is a genuine J type, yet somehow we’ve ended up inverted. I’m usually in control, deciding what we’ll do and when we’ll do it, while she’s been seemingly content to follow my lead and see what happens.

Which has worked. But it’s been a lot of work, with each of us using our weaker functions to get through life.

Embrace your P-ness

Logically the answer is to revert to our genuine types. That means I should relax, accept that I’m intrinsically disorganized by worldly standards, and let my wife take up some of the slack.

Become the feckless hippie my MBTI results suggest I ought to be, (or more flattering but therefore less therapeutic, the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog…thanks INTJ!)

But it’s really hard to go against years of training and conditioning.

It’s really hard to stop J-ing, to just let go and not even write blog posts summing up the awesome insights that come to me.

And perhaps that’s because the simple P-J message is a little too simple after all.

It’s meant to tell us which of our functions is extroverted – the perceiving one, or the judging one.

But if you’re an introvert, your extroverted function will be auxiliary, subordinate to and weaker than your dominant.

So I may be a P-type, but since my dominant function is a judging function, I’m not the most P that a P could be.

Likewise, my wife is a J-type, but her dominant is a perceiving function, so she’s not the most J kind of J either.

As one site puts it:

IP types have a dominant introverted judging function, which will make them seem more like judgers (J types) than other P types.

And for IJ types vice-versa.

Typical of an INFP (apparently), these kinds of renovations of my theoretical model come easily and frequently, but they don’t change the underlying “feel” I have for what is important.

When I act or think like a J-type, I might be relying too much on my inferior Te (extroverted Thinking) function, as I previously thought, but another way of looking at the whole situation is that I have unhealthy Fi (introverted Feeling) pushing me to accomplish things.

When too many possibilities proliferate, I get tired and want to put away my MBTI toys because I sense that achieving perfect understanding will not yield proportional benefits to me.

Yet this in turn reflects an aspect of my inferior Te – taking single variables and enlarging them until they seem to account for everything. Yes! That’s the one-single mistake I make! (ironic laughter).

The good news is that for an introverted Feeler the actual thoughts don’t need to be nailed down. Despite my past attempts to find all the answers to everything and be right all the time, I don’t really need to know anything, so long as I know how I feel.

Myers-Briggs functions vs temperamental factors

I’ve been using the MBTI functions as a way of sharpening focus on the four temperaments.

This is because pragmatically the functions allow a finer-grained analysis of the temperaments.

For example, what’s the difference between a melancholic-phlegmatic and a melancholic-sanguine?

Both are NF types. Melancholic-phlegmatics are xNFP and melancholic-sanguines are xNFJ.

This means that melancholic-phlegmatics are using extroverted intuition (Ne) and introverted feeling (Fi), whereas melancholic-sanguines are using introverted intuition (Ni) and extroverted feeling (Fe).

So in the first instance, although both are melancholic with the combination of feeling and intuition, the NeFi combo is already a more introverted way of being than the NiFe combo. Fe is externally oriented, meaning that the melancholic-sanguine makes decisions according to their sense of how others are feeling, for the sake of group harmony.

Fe types want to connect with others and maintain good relationships, whereas Fi types are more motivated by internal coherence and authenticity.

 

In addition to the orientation of the feeling function, the third and fourth functions of either type also play a role in describing the difference in temperament.

Melancholic-phlegmatics’ third and fourth functions are extroverted thinking (Te) and introverted sensing (Si). Melancholic-sanguines’ are introverted thinking (Ti) and extroverted sensing (Se).

The significant part here is that Si and Se are the determining functions of the phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments respectively. Si gives the phlegmatic their inward, mnemonic focus. Se gives sanguines their sensory, outward, experiential focus.

That’s why these two types of melancholic can be similar, yet in other ways so distinct. What makes one melancholic partly phlegmatic is the inward orientation of their Feeling function plus their introverted sensing (Si) in third or fourth place. What makes the other melancholic more sanguine is the extroversion of their Feeling, plus the extroverted sensing (Se) in their third or fourth place.

Or is it…

But the functions are just useful, finer-grained descriptions. No one knows if they are actually different cognitive functions, and so we can ask which is the underlying reality: MBTI functions, or temperamental factors?

What I mean by temperamental factors is that the four temperaments are typically described as combinations of two factors – the clearest of which (in my opinion) are excitability and duration of impression.

Given that a melancholic has low excitability with enduring impressions, but that melancholics differ by degrees, we can ask the following interesting (but not very pragmatic) question:

Are the differing degrees of melancholic due to real differences in cognitive function, or are supposed differences in cognitive function just ways of describing varying degrees of melancholy?

In other words, are Fi and Fe different things, or are they just different degrees of the same thing?

As far as I can tell, it’s quite possible that Fi is really just a less excitable form of Feeling, and Fe a more excitable one.

But going a step further, I’m not sure that Feeling and Thinking are necessarily different things either.

It’s plausible that F and T represent less excitable and more excitable forms of the same cognitive process. In effect, F is like a blurred and impressionistic version of the sharper, detail-oriented T.

Can you trust your feelings?

There’s a widespread perception that feelings are an untrustworthy guide.

I think this probably comes from situations where people have bucked the conventional trends and rules of life and justified it rightly or wrongly on the basis of feelings that defy scrutiny and interrogation.

“It just feels right to me!”

But the same thing happens all the time with thinking. Thinking too can be an untrustworthy and dangerous guide for many people, but in those instances we tend to label them “stupid” or “irrational” or “stubborn” rather than criticise them for thinking per se.

The truth is that there’s such a thing as good and bad feeling, just as there is good and bad thinking.

What makes either one good or bad is the degree of honesty with oneself, and the knowledge in and around the thought or feeling that guides us.

For example, if we think that vaccination is bad for us, or that raw chicken is okay to eat, then we are being guided by thoughts that are either insufficiently scrutinised or else coloured by some ulterior motive.

Similarly, our feelings can be coloured by deeper motives, or we can be mistaken in our own interpretation of them.

In accord with temperament, I think we can use either thinking or feeling to work out what we want to do. But it’s up to us to be honest with ourselves and clear about the nature of the thoughts or feelings we are following.

Perhaps the best way to put it is that both our thoughts and feelings should be genuine or authentic. In my own life I seem to get into trouble when – either thinking or feeling – my words and actions are coloured by ulterior motives of which I am not fully conscious.

Things like insecurity, escapism, avoidance and so on.

I might have a desire to say something, but what is driving that desire? Is it the genuine expression of a good feeling, or is it a shady evasion of a bad one?

I just don’t feel like it

The INFP functional stack looks like this

Dominant: introverted feeling (Fi)

Auxiliary: extroverted intuition (Ne)

Tertiary: introverted sensing (Si)

Inferior: extroverted thinking (Te)

The problem for INFPs is that society privileges Te and Si over Ne and especially Fi.

This means that focusing on effectiveness and outcomes (Te),

or on past experience and “what worked before” (Si)

is more rewarding than

seeing abstract connections between things (Ne),

or having a deep and mysterious nonverbal inner landscape that tells you what you like and don’t like (Fi).

Yeah, that last one is a bit of a mouthful and I’ll have to unpack it later if possible.

So from childhood most INFPs are taught to put their tertiary and inferior functions ahead of their dominant and auxiliary.

This is problematic because our tertiary and inferior functions are generally weaker, less developed, and require more energy to use than our dominant and auxiliary. Depending too much on your tertiary and inferior functions means you’re not working with your strengths.

For the INFP it also means we’re not being authentic. We’re living according to the imposed values of Si and Te…demands we can meet, but at an awful cost.

The cost is that we feel awful.

Our dominant function of introverted feeling doesn’t go away. It keeps telling us “this is bad…this is bad…” even while we persist in letting our tertiary and inferior functions drive us.

We end up in this unfortunate state because for most of our lives we’ve been asked to justify and explain ourselves in terms that the broader society will appreciate; yet the very nature of introverted feeling is that it’s extremely difficult to describe or communicate to others.

Sometimes the best we can say is “I don’t feel like it”, which is not considered valid by many people.

So we stretch ourselves to come up with “reasons” that actually feel (to us) like excuses. But excuses are the only language some people will listen to. And if you can be reasonable enough, you can convince these people of your position.

They might disagree, but they’ll at least acknowledge that you’re playing their game. At least you’re giving them something to disagree with.

It’s a formative experience for an INFP to be relentlessly pushed for an answer, explanation, or justification, when really we were operating on feeling the whole time.

The people pushing for “reasons” aren’t necessarily bullies, they’re likely operating from a different function. They’re assuming that the INFP has clear and concise reasons for their behaviour, reasons that are easy to articulate and communicate.

So when the INFP struggles to communicate these reasons, the interrogator doesn’t understand the apparent reluctance or resistance. From the interrogator’s point of view, the INFP must be too afraid or too embarrassed or too malicious to share their reasons.

For the INFP, the interrogator’s scrutiny itself comes across as an indictment, an implicit charge that the vague, inarticulate world of introverted feeling is faulty and inadequate. The prolonged and persistent attempts to get an INFP to explain themselves just reinforce the INFP’s sense of being incomprehensible to others.

From what I’ve seen of other INFPs, I’m guessing I’ve gone pretty far down the road of training and depending on my tertiary and inferior functions.

But these tertiary and inferior functions are crippling when they exceed their station. I’ve begun to notice the many occasions in which Si and Te states of mind or impulses surface, to detrimental effect.

In my writing, these manifest as the internal pressure to arrive at decisive conclusions, explain my points exhaustively, be unassailable in the position I take, consider all possible objections, research everything to ensure I make no mistakes, and try repeatedly to communicate my meaning as effectively as possible.

None of these are bad things to aim for. But what happens so often is that my initial burst of inspiration is crushed and suffocated by the sheer burden of these demands.

I might have a meaningful idea I feel strongly about (Fi), that draws on some abstract connections or patterns I’ve noticed (Ne), but a third of the way in I’m already wondering “who cares about this? What’s the point?” (Te), or I’ve researched the issue in question and utterly derailed my train of thought by overloading it with new data (Si), or I’ve tried to adhere too closely to conventions of genre and the light-hearted piece I started with has turned into a weighty, leaden recount (Si).

There’s nothing wrong with Si and Te, but if what really drives you is Fi and Ne, then denying those functions is going to make you feel drained, worn out and depleted.

 

 

 

 

Follow your feelings?

If you google “follow your feelings” you’ll find disparate advice.

Some people say you should follow your feelings, “listen to your heart” and so on.

Others say that this is terrible advice. You need to think clearly, reasonably, objectively, before you act.

So which is it? Are your feelings an infallible inner guide, or bound to lead you astray?

Different personality types

We can find exemplars and tragic cases to illustrate either side: people who follow their feelings…and leave a trail of destruction in their wake, or those who ignore their feelings only to end up leading hollow, empty lives.

But if we take seriously a personality theory like the MBTI, it quickly becomes clear that feeling and thinking play different roles in people’s personalities.

In the MBTI feeling and thinking are distinct cognitive functions. Those who are “good at” thinking tend to be bad at feeling and vice-versa. But throughout the course of our lives we also tend to go through a process of embracing our weaker, “inferior” function, relying on it too much, and finally coming to accept its subordinate role in our personality.

So for example, a feeling-dominant person discovers the untapped potential of their inferior thinking function and embraces it. Thinking seems mysterious and powerful, but they’re not naturally adept at it and are blind to the weaknesses and flaws in their use of it.

Eventually they will come to realise the limitations of thinking, and return to their dominant feeling function.

Someone who goes through this journey may well describe it as the discovery that they should have “followed their heart” all along. That’s because denying their feelings and pursuing their weaker thinking function was essentially a self-limiting and flawed approach to life.

By the end of this journey, the individual should be more balanced and centred, and objectively happier.

Thinking-dominant

A thinking-dominant person will go through the inverse process – embracing their inferior feeling function at some point in their early life, and pursuing it beyond its natural limits in their personality.

For the thinking-dominant person, their feeling function really will lead them astray.

Eventually they too will reach a point where the limits of feeling become clear to them, and they resolve to return to their dominant thinking function.

Someone who goes through this journey may well reject the illusory wisdom of “follow your feelings”. They will reassert the merits of their thinking function. The image they project and the narrative they recount will be at odds with the feeling-dominant person, but the general shape of the journey should be analogous.

If you put these two different personalities side-by-side they will describe the same kind of process of disintegration and reintegration, of abandoning and then rediscovering their strength, but they may nonetheless still argue with each other and vehemently disagree about the role of thinking versus feeling.

Intuition and sensing

The same process should theoretically occur for people who are either intuition-dominant or sensing-dominant according to the MBTI. This dichotomy might be described as “follow your intuition” versus “stick to the facts”.

Depending what is called your “functional stack” both dichotomies will emerge throughout your life.

For example, if your functional stack is FiNeSiTe (INFP), you’ll experience a major pull toward your inferior thinking function, and an eventual return to your dominant feeling function. But at the same time you may also experience a more muted struggle to make sense of your auxiliary intuition and your tertiary sensing functions.

By contrast, an INFJ has a different functional stack: NiFeTiSe. They’ll experience a strong pull toward their inferior sensing function, distracting from or overriding their dominant intuition. At the same time they will struggle to work out the balance between their feeling and thinking functions, though on a less dramatic level than the struggle experienced by the INFP.

Who should you listen to?

The problem is that people can make compelling cases for either side in the two dichotomies…because people generally are experiencing both sides of the struggle.

If we don’t know our own personality, we can become confused about which direction we’re meant to be headed.

A feeling-dominant person struggling in ignorance to suppress their feeling function may find encouragement in the advice of thinking-dominant people who have overcome their struggle with inferior feeling.

But that would be a mistake.

The two circumstances are quite different. Feeling-dominant people will not be led astray by their feelings. Thinking-dominant people will be.

What makes these struggles even more confusing is that stress, abuse, and suffering in early life will contribute to the embrace of the inferior function as people seek out adaptive strategies to survive difficult circumstances.

So some people will find that embracing their inferior function is the only way they know how to live. You might be a feeling-dominant personality, but if you feel terrible you aren’t exactly going to revel in the rediscovery of your dominant function.

Perhaps the best we can do is to become aware of the limitations in our inferior functions. We might enjoy using them, we might even be very good at them, but they will have serious deficiencies or blind-spots, and take significantly more energy to use than the functions that ought to come more naturally.

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.

 

You think too much

I’ve often been told I think too much, but it has – with no sense of irony – taken years of thinking for me understand what this means.

I would have said that in fact I do not think enough, and I continue thinking precisely because I have not yet arrived at the answers I seek.

Recently I have been thinking about the difference between training and performance, specifically in a martial arts context. My natural tendency upon encountering failure or less-than-ideal circumstances is to think about it. I think because experience has shown that thinking often helps me to understand, and that understanding helps me to do, and to do better than I would if I didn’t understand.

But there are exceptions, and martial arts is one of them. Because, if instead of ‘performing’ the moves I go back to thinking about them and analysing them, the actual quality of the move changes dramatically.  It turns out you cannot both perform a move and analyse a move at the same time. Then the question arises: what are you actually practicing when you practice your martial art? Are you practicing ‘performing’ or doing the moves, or are you practicing thinking about and analysing the moves?

By analogy, it’s as though I’ve found driving a car to be uncomfortable, confusing, and overall dissatisfying, and so I’ve resolved to stay on my learner’s permit for as long as it takes for me to “work it out”.  Sixteen years later, my instructor is thoroughly sick of me, and I’ve finally had to admit that there aren’t really any secrets or revelations to acquire from the learner’s stage, and that I will only ever be good at driving normally if I practice driving normally.

This has particular relevance in martial arts where various luminaries have extolled having a beginner’s mind a la Zen Buddhism, and others have admitted amidst the heights of their skill to be nonetheless always learning.

We obviously aren’t talking about the same thing.

I don’t really know what to make of having spent so long in a flawed approach to practicing a martial art. And paradoxically I still have to credit analysis and “thinking” with having brought me to these realisations. The best I can say is that previously I was thinking about the wrong things. Or I lacked information that I could only come across via the frustration built up through years of dissatisfying practice.

It took years of failure to break through the assumption that kung fu is somehow not dependent first and foremost on a sound physique, or that being bad at sport generally would have nothing to do with being bad at a martial art. Or that the esoteric allure of kung fu might be glossing over a number of more mundane requirements.

Ironically, if I had seriously thought about kung fu in the way that I have learned to think about philosophy, ethics, and other subjects, I would have known to start without assumptions, without desired outcomes. I would have been highly suspicious of the wishful thinking at the heart of my motivation.  At the same time, being more detached from the object of my desire might have left me more open to improvements and inspiration “out of left field”. Instead, my doggedness to pursue this long-standing ideal has been thoroughly detrimental to my development.

All I can say in favour of it is that I have persevered for a long time; but paradoxically, if I had not stuck to this unexamined ideal for so long I might not have needed to be so blindly perseverant.

Craving or desire warps the intellect. We tend to cling to our cravings and desires because they feel so deeply a part of us. But there is always something deeper and more wholesome that is not dependent on external conditions, and if I had been more honest with myself I would have recognised that the very appeal of esoteric martial arts was in fact a symptom of a deeper and more constant awareness that I was not physically strong, balanced, or at ease.

Sertillanges writes in The Intellectual Life:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

I am familiar with this “zone of silence”, and it is the natural answer to the problem of “thinking too much” and thinking not enough. It is not thinking that matters or that gives answers; we do not arrive at truth by thinking about it, rather thinking is merely a manifestation of the work of attending to the truth in its entirety and without holding anything back.

This is our noble and excellent calling, and it is only in stupidity and vanity that I have failed to turn it to other areas of my life, somehow imagining that truth has no bearing on the mundane or strictly personal, perhaps afraid of what I might find when turning that brightest of lights onto the mess and darkness of my own orbit; or intimidated by the magnitude of the task ahead, bringing my own admittedly pathetic self into the same domain as exalted abstractions, principles and truths.

It’s one thing to know truth, quite another to know that you do not measure up to it, or how far you fall short; better not to ask that question, isn’t it?

Indeed, the prospect of bringing my own deeply held desires and ideals, the very personal themes with which I identify, and submitting them to this “zone of silence” is immediately terrifying. And that, more than anything, indicates that I should do it.

 

Stuck in my head

In the literature on temperaments I’ve read that melancholics seem to be less coordinated, less ‘at home’ in their bodies, and more prone to illness and minor ailments.

Even before I came across the temperament theory, I’d concluded that as someone who thinks a great deal, spending so much time “in my head” upsets things like balance, coordination, proprioception, and my awareness of minor aches and pains, tension, thirst, and bad posture.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I spend nearly every waking moment thinking. And while I’ve tried various methods to ‘quiet’ my mind in line with generic meditation advice, I think that such advice is not necessarily appropriate for a melancholic idealist philosopher.

After all, I’m not just thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner. My mind is inquiring, analysing, speculating, and critiquing. My mind composes speeches, stories, articles and even conversations; it welcomes inspiring new ideas and elaborates on intriguing problems and dilemmas. It’s always working, and while it can be exhausting, I feel I’ve found the right kinds of creative directions for this mental energy.

So while I used to think this constant thinking was excessive and needed to be shut down, I now see it as a skill and a creative process that needed to be trained, disciplined, and given appropriate work to do.

Nonetheless, there are times when being so ‘head-centred’ becomes too much, and I’ve found over the years that it’s possible to shift the focus away from thoughts and towards other aspects of embodied awareness, such as the aforementioned proprioception, breathing, or just the feel of my feet on the floor. But more important is the sense of dimming the focus on my thoughts, of deciding that my thoughts are not important for the time being, and I won’t miss anything by letting go of them for a while.

We talk about lowering our centre of gravity, but this is more like lowering the centre of awareness. As strange as it sounds, it has an immediate impact on perception, making everything around me seem a little more real and substantial. It’s as though being focused on one’s thoughts and dwelling in abstraction leaves the world feeling somewhat unreal.

The world of thoughts is a valuable one, but this conflict between thinking and being troubles me. It leaves me wondering what a true balance would look like; am I really overdoing the thinking, and is it undermining my health in ways of which I am oblivious? If you’ve ever had the experience of getting up from a computer desk after hours craning over a keyboard, you’ll understand that we can easily lose touch with bodily discomfort when engrossed in mental activity. How much more so if we spend most of each waking day lost in thought?

That’s a telling idiom after all: no one ever claims to find themselves in thought. Am I, a thinker, more myself when I am thinking? Or am I just someone who’s gotten used to losing himself in entertaining, instructive, ever-more-engaging thoughts?