Temperament Project 04: Excitability and Duration of Impression

We’ve mostly forgotten how to think like our ancestors, which is why concepts like “heat and moisture” don’t make immediate sense to us.

Jakob Henle

But alongside modern medicine, interest in the four temperaments persisted. That’s how we end up with interesting cases like the 19th Century German-Jewish anatomist Jakob Henle, for whom the Loop of Henle in the kidney is named (and whose marriage to a maid and seamstress was the inspiration for Pygmalion, and thence My Fair Lady).

Henle was at the forefront of cell physiology using microscopes, became a proponent of the then-unpopular contagion theory of infection, and developed the four basic categories of tissue still used today.

Henle also wrote on temperament, and sought to explain the widely accepted four types in more up-to-date biological terms, specifically in terms of the nervous system.

Excitation

When nerve cells receive a stimulus they become excited. Excitation in this sense simply means activity.

Henle believed that a person’s temperament was a reflection of the tonus of their nervous system: how easily excited the cells are, and how long they remain active or excited after the stimulus is removed.

Cholerics are excitable and form enduring impressions. This means they react strongly and quickly to stimuli, and their reaction lasts for a long time.

Sanguines are also excitable, but their impressions are comparatively short-lived, leaving them susceptible to distraction. They react strongly and quickly to one thing after another.

Melancholics are not very excitable. Our reaction to stimuli is comparatively slow and weak, but like the choleric our reactions last a long time.

Phlegmatics are not easily excited either, but unlike the melancholic their impressions are short-lived.

Worldview

Each temperament’s way of seeing the world can be viewed as an outcome of these characteristics.

Why are cholerics “ambitious”? Because they have strong quick reactions to stimuli and these reactions last a long time. What we mean by ambition is strong desire that endures.

Why do sanguines like nice things and good experiences? Because they too react strongly and quickly to stimuli, but because their reactions are brief they are constantly drawn to new and exciting things.

Why are melancholics “idealists”? Because we aren’t excited enough by stimuli, so we are drawn to ideas that magnify the significance of everyday life. A new car doesn’t excite us much. But a new electric car is enhanced by ideals like environmentalism, game-changing technological advancement and breaking of tired conventions. Now that’s exciting! (And I don’t even own one).

Why are phlegmatics easy-going and rule-abiding? Because they have slow, weak reactions like the melancholic, but these reactions are brief like the sanguine. They aren’t strongly excited by anything, and they don’t dwell on things either. Following the rules is just the obvious thing to do, especially if it helps everyone get along and avoid conflict.

Temperament Project 02: the Four Temperaments at a Glance

We have to start somewhere so let’s begin with a brief depiction of each of the four temperaments.

Cholerics see the world in terms of ambition, accomplishment, and standing. They have high self-esteem and naturally put themselves forward. They are proud, and angry when thwarted. They like to compete, love to win, and will gravitate toward success and leadership.

Sanguines are drawn to nice things and good experiences. They love having fun, are quite easy-going, and while they can quickly become angry, especially at perceived injustices, they just as quickly let go of their anger too. Sanguines tend to be more easily bored and distracted.

Melancholics are drawn to meaning and ideals. They are reflective and often hesitant to act, inclined to pessimism and dwelling on their own failures and shortcomings. Melancholics love authenticity and hate inauthentic situations and people, yet they struggle to authentically express themselves and are prone to try to fit in with other temperaments.

Phlegmatics are generally very placid and easy-going. They are not strongly excited by anything, but hate conflict and being put on the spot. They love to follow the rules and will happily do their own thing or go along with the crowd.

More to come

There’s a lot more to come, but this should serve as a basis. Consider yourself and the people you know. Are they:

Ambitious and strong-willed (choleric)

Idealistic and cautious (melancholic)

Fun loving and easily distracted (sanguine)

Placid and rule-abiding (phlegmatic)

These four characterisations aren’t perfect, but we will refine them and expand on them in future posts.

Temperament Project 01: Getting Started

Blogging has helped me stay focused on some subjects, so why not use it to focus on writing my book about temperament? My aim is to write regular blog posts that will help shape and inspire an eventual book. Hope you like it!

What is temperament, and why should I care?

Temperament is the foundation of your personality. It’s the part of your personality hard-wired from birth, biologically based, that determines how you respond to the world.

It’s significant in the same way that physical attributes like height are significant. Some people are taller and some are shorter; and while your height doesn’t dictate anything about you, it does shape your experience and make certain outcomes more, or less, likely.

Being tall will give you an advantage in basketball, netball, swimming and some other sports, but it might be a disadvantage in weight-lifting, ballet, gymnastics or horse-racing.

Temperament is more complicated than height, but it has an analogous impact on your choices in life and the shaping of your personality.

Life-long traits

Contemporary psychology has studied aspects of temperament and found that traits identified in infancy will persist throughout life.

The ancient Greeks observed this too, and in their own proto-scientific context they came up with theories to explain these fundamental differences in temperament.

If the world was made up of four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water, then obviously the human body must be governed by four basic substances too.

Blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile were the four fluids or humours that determined health or illness, as well as the foundation of the personality: the temperament.

The word temperament itself means blend or mix and refers to the blend of humours within the individual.

We each have all four humours within us, but one or two tend to dominate. Depending on the blend, individuals are categorised as sanguine (blood), phlegmatic (phlegm), choleric (yellow bile), or melancholic (black bile).

A perfectly balanced person would have all four in proportion. But most of us can be described by a primary-secondary blend. Thus a person with primary choleric and secondary phlegmatic is a choleric-phlegmatic.

But Greek medicine was wrong…wasn’t it?

Absolutely!

There’s no such thing as black bile, and there’s no indication that the other bodily fluids mentioned have any impact on personality or behaviour in the way the Greeks envisaged.

But observations are still valid data, even if the theory that attempted to explain those observations has been discarded.

In the case of temperament what we have inherited from the Greeks and the civilisations that adopted Greek medicine is a robust yet pragmatic set of observations spanning millennia.

We may not know yet what causes differences in temperament, but we do know that such differences exist, and the four temperament model remains a valuable framework for understanding, interpreting, and responding to those differences in ourselves and others.

Going beyond answers

Caution: may contain answers. Please do not touch the paradox.

The basic law of attraction idea is that you get more of whatever you focus on.

I’ve been focused on understanding and answers for about twenty years, super-intense rumination, philosophy and mysticism, hoping I would suddenly find the pearl of great price and be perfect.

It was mostly motivated by fear and lack, so of course the answers I found were never enough.

In learning to meditate I’m wanting to go beyond that whole dimension of answers I’ve accrued and find something more satisfying and more pure.

That’s a good intention. In fact it’s inspiration. I have a backlog of unfelt relief three miles high just waiting to be enjoyed.

Meditation for narrative discontinuity

Without going all author-itative on you, I know what it’s like to write a story, a narrative, and keep thinking “what’s next?” while smoothing out the continuity.

There’s a whole lot of unspoken convention and flow that keeps the audience engaged, and a potentially infinite number of things that could be written that would break the narrative and ruin the story.

We don’t like stories where the character or the setting change for no reason.

But that’s exactly what I want for myself

My own continuity is holding me back, and the continuity lives in my habitual thoughts. Meditation as a way of finding relief without habitual thinking is like a personal deus ex machina swooping in to change things without regard to narrative coherence.

Deus ex meditatio?

My Latin is crap but you get the idea.

Meditation feels like intense relief because it takes me out of the old story, the confining narrative I’ve kept alive for myself.

When I was severely depressed the stories I wrote were bleak and horrible without meaning to be. It’s just what made sense in that state of mind.

How much moreso the story I’ve told myself only half-aware?

When meditation stops the story, it’s the ultimate freedom from old narrative pressures, conventions and constraints. It’s a new creation, true rest, and respite from a world that doesn’t need to be.

I don’t have to make this relief fit; I can’t. My old story is an old wineskin. Time to start afresh.

Inspired or desperate?

Do you know the difference between inspiration and desperation?

Some days I’d open a book and be blown away by the love and wisdom flowing from its page.

Other days I’d go grinding page by page searching through the same book or others for that elusive gem.

I’d tie myself in knots trying to love God, trying on a hundred different methods one after another.

That’s the difference between inspiration and desperation.

Whenever you feel as if taking action, gaining knowledge, or exerting effort will “fix” everything for you, you are being tempted by desperation, and only disappointment will come of it.

But if you can feel good without acting, relish the feeling without doing anything to grasp it, revel in the energy flowing through you regardless of circumstances, then you are inspired.

Sometimes it’s not entirely clear. I can write a blog post and the act of sitting down to write allows that energy to flow.

But I can go searching for the perfect quote, and be lost in frustration within minutes, lost in the searching for an answer “over there”.

Don’t worry about making mistakes. The mistakes will awaken your sensitivity and inform your awareness. The more you care about inspiration the quicker you will sense it’s path.

Writing as spiritual discipline

Writing can be a spiritual discipline.

It can also not be. And like meditation or prayer it can be graceful and profound or a leaden itching struggle.

But writing is my spiritual discipline.

I used to feel bad that when I read a spiritual text I’d lose my sense of God as soon as I closed the book.

Real contemplatives didn’t need to stare at a page to feel close to God, right? I felt like a fake, inspired only by the words of real masters but having no power or wisdom of my own.

Well eventually I learned that reading this way is a legitimate discipline of prayer – lectio divina.

More importantly I realised it didn’t matter! For goodness sake! If reading spiritual texts helps me feel God’s presence that’s not “cheating”, that’s a blessing!

And now I feel the same discipline emerging in my own writing: a state of focus and tranquil depth that I can access with the right intention.

Because what is writing but accessing and enlarging and elaborating on a thought? Whatever the thought is, writing lets it expand within us.

So when I write about higher things I’m accessing higher thoughts and opening my mind to receive more of whatever I’m writing about.

Writing is therefore a contemplative practice, meditatio in the Western tradition. And with the right intention of accessing always higher and better-feeling thoughts, writing brings me closer to God and fills me with inspiration, love, peace and joy.

Writing is my path.

Writing for fun, profit…and a desperate need for approval?

So i wrote an article and it was picked up by my editor, which means success! Money! Well done!

And today my wife mentioned that it’s May 4th tomorrow: Star Wars Day, and I immediately thought I could write another article and repeat that feeling of success and income and achievement.

Except that the moment I started it felt like a dry uphill battle. And then I started feeling physically uncomfortable and I started feeling some pain.

Okay. Let’s stop. This is pretty clear feedback.

For a number of years I’ve wanted some kind of formula for success – a task or work I can throw myself into and be applauded and rewarded for it.

But when I try, when I think “this is it!” bad things happen.

I really should just admit that I’m acting out of something negative. But it’s so enticing! I can just imagine this being the start of a whole series of great articles that build and build and bring me success and pride and please the people around me too.

I’ll be fitting in, finding my place, pleasing my superiors and placating those who’ve worried about me.

I’ll finally have an answer for the people who’ve demanded to know “what are you doing with your life?”

This is pretty cool contrast

I really don’t want writing to put me in physical pain, and I know there’s an issue here that would really benefit from my focus.

And I suspect the issue is: thinking that I must do something to win approval.

I’m actually really well accustomed to not feeling approved of, so much so that I sometimes leap at the chance to help people important to me.

But that’s still operating under the false premise that I require other people’s approval in order to feel good. I might have given up on it, but I still feel the weight of that premise.

All good feeling comes from within

Back to basics: it’s not our circumstances that make us feel good or bad, it’s the thoughts we focus on and their relative degree of alignment with our inner being, our “God’s eye view”.

Thinking that I need other people’s approval feels bad because it is not true and it is resistant to the love and appreciation that already flows to me from within.

My impulse to write another article was an attempt to use action to change my circumstances so I could feel better. That never works.

But that doesn’t mean I should resign myself once more to living without approval.

Feeling comes first

The only reason I wanted approval in the first place was because I thought I would feel good if I had it, and I believed I would get it if I found some work I could take pride in and earn money from.

Let’s go positive with this.

How would it feel to have approval of all the important people in my life?

It would actually feel really good.

But here’s the thing: In the moment I imagined that approval and felt that good feeling, I was simply allowing a good feeling to flow from within me.

That good feeling was always accessible within me. I just disallowed it because I thought I actually needed others to provide it.

In that sense does the feeling of “approval” ever come from others? No. It always comes from within us. It is our own allowing of approval to flow.

The Batman article we deserve

Mercatornet republished my blog post on International Batman Day!

And what a great and immediate example of what I wrote in a recent post:

It’s a bit like writing a draft. Is a draft a failure because it’s not as good as the revision? Of course not.

I remember someone saying that a first draft is really your first best try. It’s creating our first best try that gives rise to our desire for something more perfect, more a match for our desire and intention.

So check out the new and improved version:

Notwithstanding forgettable renditions in the current crop of DC films, and the controversy of Batman killing many people in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Christopher Nolan’s 2005 trilogy set the bar high in our appreciation of the Dark Knight’s story.

In Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan rescues our beloved hero from weak and campy portrayals of the late 90s, a series of films that had itself attempted to rehabilitate Batman’s image from the even more kitsch 60s TV series starring Adam West.

For many though, the gold standard is the early 90s Batman: The Animated Series which is not only regarded by many as the best on-screen portrayal of Batman anywhere, but one of the best animated series full stop.

https://www.mercatornet.com/popcorn/view/happy-international-day-batman/22423

Count Your Blessings Day 9

Welcoming contrast.

Today’s blessing is that I’m finding myself facing contrast, and welcoming it.

Contrast is sort of like unwanted experience.

But at a certain point it’s not right to call it unwanted as though that’s a bad thing. Because contrast helps us to hone and refine and reach for what we do want.

It’s a bit like writing a draft. Is a draft a failure because it’s not as good as the revision? Of course not.

I remember someone saying that a first draft is really your first best try. It’s creating our first best try that gives rise to our desire for something more perfect, more a match for our desire and intention.

So I’m facing some contrast in life around the subject of money, and it’s actually very welcome because without this contrast I don’t think I could yet have focused as clearly as I’d like to on that subject.

Or better yet…

It’s because I’m ready and in a good place to focus on the subject of money that I’m now receiving some contrast to help me refine my desires and shift my thinking about it!

So the contrast itself is truly welcome, while I appreciate all that has transpired to make me better able to handle it.

Writing from my couch

This past week I finally downloaded the WordPress app to my phone and I’ve been writing my posts while lying on my couch.

I should have done this ages ago! Forget stand up desks, yoga balls and ergonomic keyboards; this is true creativity untethered!

Lying on a couch is the best way to write. Honestly it feels so good I’m jealous of myself.

There’s something simultaneously rebellious and luxurious about it, playful and deeply satisfying like a childhood dream where bed becomes a boat and we float on the ocean waves in the miraculous comfort of dry linen, pillows and blankets.

I can hear the cars go by on the busy road outside my door. A clean breeze is blowing through the room. My head is supported by the arm of this 100 year old sofa, as I share my thoughts with you through the glowing screen.

And who needs ten fingers to type, anyway? What can be said in two minutes that can’t be better said in ten? I’m all thumbs right now but that’s more my speed.

Whatever makes me feel better, what makes writing more satisfying and more fun, what turns work into relaxation…

I don’t think I could have done this before. I’d have thought writing should be more serious, more intentional, more focused.

But more relaxed? More happy? More easy?

This tiny miracle of technology and receptivity is just one of many I attribute to my work of learning to feel better.

The smartphone, wifi, and apps are one miracle, but more significant is even allowing myself to consider it, to think that enjoyment is worthwhile, and care enough about how I feel to reach for it.