Towards a spiritual psychology

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

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

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

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

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

A quick sketch

Consciousness is something special.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The light in the darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light, love, and maladaptive defense-mechanisms

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

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

You can see this very clearly in children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The many layers of the psyche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metastasizing fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the answer

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

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

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

But on the other hand:

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

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless the answers are there.

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

Melancholics and trauma

A reader asked how melancholics express love and affection, physically and emotionally, etc.

I feel like l need to understand why he takes forever to be close to me, doesn’t seem to like physical touch (which l think is related to past trauma) despite me providing a safe zone.

I don’t know the person in question, so this is more of an educated guess based on my own experiences and my interactions with other melancholics.

Trauma

First I would say that it most likely is related to past trauma, or the internal adaptations he’s made to the past trauma.

In a melancholic, trauma could produce adaptations like detachment/dissociation, hypervigilance, agitation, and so on.

Physical touch could be difficult because he’s basically in fight-or-flight mode, feeling in danger and ready to run or lash out at the slightest hint of a threat. His nervous system could be amped up, and every sound or sensation is magnified and feels like a violent imposition that is putting him in danger.

That’s one option anyway.

Alternatively, he could be detaching/dissociating from unpleasant emotions, trying not to feel them. If this is the case, then physical touch would be unwelcome because he’s already doing his best not to feel anything. Physical contact from a loved-one would normally have a relaxing, grounding effect, but in his case it would also bring him closer to his unwanted painful emotions.

Temperament

Dissociation and hypervigilance are pretty common responses regardless of temperament, though I suspect melancholics are more prone to internalise and hold on to past trauma than the other temperaments.

But in addition to mechanisms like dissociation and hypervigilance, melancholics will also respond to trauma in uniquely melancholic ways.

Because melancholics are idealists, they will be drawn to idealising their response. That means they will look for ultimate, perfect, and meaningful responses to their suffering.

You can tell a sanguine or phlegmatic to “learn to let go” but a melancholic will baulk at “letting go” because it implies that the problem is not as significant as it feels to them.

Letting go sounds like “forgetting” and since when has a problem ever gone away just by forgetting about it?

So a melancholic will be drawn to radical, idealised solutions to their internal suffering. Solutions like…rejecting all intimate or dependent human relationships, wishing they could live alone like a hermit on a mountaintop, somehow gaining complete control over their emotions, or simply ceasing to rely on or experience emotions in the first place.

These are the kinds of ‘solutions’ that will really just mess you up a whole lot more, but they appeal to the melancholic because they are inspiring. They hold meaning and promise a lasting solution to the problem of suffering.

What I’m getting at here is that a melancholic might have developed ideals and (unrealistic) goals that further inhibit them from accepting or expressing affection.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is like being lost in a fog where only the biggest and brightest landmarks can be (dimly) seen. So imagine you’ve grown up in the fog, unable to respond adequately to your own suffering by altering your environment, and this predicament has left a deep and long-lasting impression on you that you never ever forget…

If you can’t change your environment (due to lack of knowledge, power, or both) then all you can do is change yourself.

Maybe the best you can do is try to stop those painful or unpleasant emotions from having control over you.

Melancholics may then choose to identify with examples of human beings who are emotionally detached and invulnerable, in the belief that this is an attainable and desirable way to live.

If this is the case with your melancholic, then he might not know how to reconcile this idealised role or imagined invulnerability with the more simple and healthy enjoyment of expressing and receiving affection.

Summary

All of this is potentially complicated.

In the first instance I would consider either the detached/dissociated or hypervigilant/fight-or-flight responses as possible explanations for avoiding accepting/expressing affection.

Both of those can run quite deep, and people do not necessarily recognise that they are in these states.

The secondary thing is the idealised role that could mean he has past or current ideals that make it hard for him to accept emotional vulnerability and intimacy. He might not even realise that these ideals are incomplete or unrealistic or not good models for a healthy human existence.

If this sounds daunting, just bear in mind that all people of different temperaments have issues and problems and faults. Melancholics are just more likely to internalise it rather than blaming it all on other people or taking it out on others.

Obviously none of this is a substitute for professional counselling etc.

So bearing in mind my non-professional status, there are a couple of ‘themes’ that might help. If possible, you could talk to him about how simple physical affection makes you feel relaxed and happy, and ask him how he feels about it.

Melancholics seem to love talking/thinking about themselves, and a spirit of genuine inquiry (as opposed to a challenge or interrogation) is usually welcome.

After all, if you start breaking love down into more basic actions and feelings, isn’t it that we feel relaxed and happy when we’re with someone we love? And physical contact tells us that the person we care about finds us lovable and attractive. Verbal affection and “reaching out” tells us that we’re important to the person we care about, and vice versa.

If you can find a way to talk about it, and discuss how he feels, I think that might prove fruitful. If he’s melancholic, he may not have a very clear sense of how he feels or why he feels that way. If there are repeated patterns like it taking him a long time to get close, then he might be able to make observations and work out what’s going on.

If you mean that each time he sees you, it takes him a while to physically get close to you, then bear in mind that it might simply be taking time for his physiological and mental state to change. That is, if his “normal” phys. and mental state is fight-or-flight, then yes it will take quite a while to cool down in your presence, to a level where he is calm enough to accept and express affection.

By becoming aware of patterns like these (if that’s what is actually going on) we can learn to adjust.

Anyhow, I hope some of this is relevant and helpful. Since I don’t know the circumstances or the individuals involved it’s quite general and may not be appropriate for your situation.

Trauma and the ingratiate melancholic

The past few days have brought up several instances that bring to mind a phenomenon I will call the ingratiate melancholic.

As mentioned in a previous post, the melancholic has a tendency to act towards others according to ideals of human behaviour that do not necessarily match how he actually feels, what he really wants or values.

The ideal spouse, friend, child, parent, guest or host, all of these impose an expectation or a role that the melancholic might feel more comfortable, more self-assured if he adheres to.  But at the same time, in adhering to the role, the melancholic is not truly being himself. He is not being true to himself and is not developing the virtue of sincerity.  His motives may be good, but he is actually giving people less of himself than if he were able to express the thoughts and feelings that do not fit into that ideal.

There is, however, another way to interpret this phenomenon: through the lens of the human response to trauma and stress.

An excellent book on Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by Pete Walker introduces the concept of PTSD developed not through single traumatic events but through consistent patterns of traumatic abuse and neglect, such that the individual develops survival-mechanisms or maladaptive responses to trauma that are in turn subject to the abusive environment. The individual is left with a personality riven through by maladaptive responses; he may not even know which parts of himself are ‘original’ and which are maladaptive response, because both have developed together and are interdependent.  So while sufferers of PTSD may be conscious of distinct personality differences before and after the trauma, for complex PTSD sufferers, no such distinction can be made.

Walker describes maladaptive responses in terms of four instinctive responses to trauma. To the well-known triad of fight, flight, and freeze, he adds the ingratiating response of ‘fawn’.  For people in long-term abuse or neglect scenarios, the most successful maladaptive strategy can become an ingrained part of the personality, whether it be fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning.  Of particular interest in the context of the melancholic temperament is Walker’s depiction of the ‘fawn’ response type:

Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. They often begin life like the precocious children described in Alice Miler’s The Drama Of The Gifted Child, who learn that a modicum of safety and attachment can be gained by becoming the helpful and compliant servants of their parents. They are usually the children of at least one narcissistic parent who uses contempt to press them into service, scaring and shaming them out of developing a healthy sense of self: an egoic locus of self-protection, self-care and self-compassion.

Walker does not utilise a temperament theory, but what interests me is the possibility that the melancholic temperament may be predisposed to developing the ingratiating ‘fawn’ strategy in response to environments that may or may not be dysfunctional in and of themselves, but are experienced as such by the melancholic child in the absence of positive role models or intelligible social and cultural messages and cues.

While a melancholic child could develop any one of the trauma responses, or multiple trauma responses, the fawn response is in many ways most appropriate to the melancholic child’s circumstances.  Firstly, like phlegmatics, melancholics are not well-attuned to the external environment to begin with, but unlike phlegmatics they also struggle to recover from traumatic experiences and incidents. An extreme melancholic child will struggle to recognise the same cues or mirror the behaviours of other children, yet will be acutely aware of this disparity and may well suffer for it. Persistent disorientation, confusion, and implicit ostracism can exacerbate actual dysfunctions in family and environment, such that the melancholic child is more severely traumatised than a child of a different temperament would be.

Yet at the same time, the causes of these trauma are systemic and normalised: imagine a melancholic child sitting confused and disoriented in a classroom where all the other children show no signs of confusion or disorientation.  If the child expresses his confusion and disorientation he will be the subject of negative attention from the teacher and other students. Of the available responses to this negative attention, fight and flight will only exacerbate it. That leaves freeze and fawn, though even freezing will bring about greater negative attention than the meekness and compliance of the fawn response.

Extrapolate this dynamic across nearly every aspect of life: the growing melancholic child fears hurt and humiliation, has a long memory for it, yet is predisposed to experience it afresh because of his relatively slow and sedate response to external stimuli. Surely such children will learn soon enough that the best way to avoid humiliation, trauma, and negative attention is to ingratiate oneself with others (especially authority figures) where possible – learning to play a compliant, amenable, obedient and good-natured role.

For adult melancholics, the pressure to maintain this long-practiced response to stress and trauma can be both reasonable and deeply emotive. On the one hand, it is reasonable to take care in how you express yourself verbally to others, so as not to unwittingly offend people with careless statements. On the other hand, it is certainly a maladaptive strategy to maintain a deeply guarded approach to social interactions, and to filter one’s statements compulsively so as to avoid any possible negative interpretations.

The danger identified through the complex PTSD concept is that melancholics may mistake this maladaptive strategy for their own personality.  They may think that they are ‘nice’ people or ‘considerate’ people rather than simply fearful and ingratiating people, who may even lack the capacity to exercise consideration or ‘niceness’ when their behaviour is already so tightly determined by stress-oriented strategies.

They may find themselves acting in ways that deny their actual thoughts, feelings, and values due to the ingrained influence of their maladaptive responses. Ultimately, they risk being unable to express themselves honestly and sincerely with friends and loved ones, living instead through the filter of an unwarranted survival mechanism that has outlived its usefulness.