Monday, December 13, 2010

Trust Thyself: Personality and Religious Orientation

Ingenuousness and Self-Trust

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self Reliance” is one of the foundational documents of the American experience generally and of Unitarianism specifically. It contains a number of memorable phrases, including these words:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chao and the Dark.

Emerson’s transcendentalism maintained that humankind and Deity had a shared identity—that at the very least, the spark of the Divine resided in the human soul. In “Self Reliance” Emerson clearly called for every person to accept her or his time and place, yes; but he also called for every person to obey their indwelling genius—a genius that he believed to be Divine in nature. (Ingenuousness was a transcendentalist aim: to be true to one’s own genius.)

Now, I don’t buy Emerson’s theology, because I maintain that, rather than being made in God’s image, god is made in our image—at least the image of the best of the human condition, its stirrings and strivings. But, in "Self Reliance" I think Emerson got it right on two counts.

First, he argued that we accept the external circumstance of our lives,--what Emerson called the place Divine providence has provided for each of us. I think that this notion of acceptance also includes acceptance of the unique person each of us is. Second, in telling us to “trust thyself,” he speaks to not only the rightness of self, but also adequacy of self. This is acceptance with the fullest measure of self-appreciation or self-respect.

Emerson was a philosophical idealist, much influenced by what in his day was called German Idealism, particularly the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The term Transcendentalism was taken directly from Kant’s philosophy.

We’ve drifted away from philosophical idealism's notions of pre-existing forms realized in the great categories of truth, beauty, and goodness. More than not, today, we're thorough materialists. Nor are we likely to talk about humans being cast in the image of God, either. Today, our understandings of the human condition are rightfully drawn from advancing thought, in particular, evolutionary biology, psychology, and neuroscience. As I said, we bend toward materialism, not idealism.

Still, I find myself continually echoing Emerson: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” In fact, if we aren't true to our intrinsic self, our true inner nature, we have neither roots nor branches. We flounder about. We can never be satisfied living a false life. (Of being, yes, disingenuous.)

Personality and Religious Orientation

Relative to being true to self, certain traditional spiritual outlooks emphasize the role of personality in one's religious spiritual life.

I first began to think about the role of personality as realized in what we secularly call psychology when I first studied Hinduism and learned of the various yogas. A yoga is a mental or physical spiritual discipline that a devotee is naturally drawn to. By diligent practice of a yoga a person progresses toward enlightenment. All yogas intersect in the same end. There is hatha yoga--the physical discipline of controlled breathing and postures. There is raja yoga--the mental discipline of meditation. There is karma yoga--the discipline of will and action (dharma) as timelessly elaborated in the Bhagavad Gita as explicated by Krishna. There is bhakti yoga--the discipline of worship of a god such as Shiva, Vishnu, or Krishna. There is jnana yoga--the discipline of knowledge through the mind's intellect.

I've long seen these various yogas as psychologically sound with many possibilities of accommodating this personality or that personality--whatever personality--within the larger grace of leading the practitioner to the same goal.

Subsequently, I became familiar with the spirituality of the First Nations People of the Plains, as introduced in 1973 by a self-described mixed-blood raised among the Northern Cheyenne and Crow, Hyemeyohsts Storm in the book Seven Arrows. Storm wrote of the Medicine Wheel. In the beginning of this influential, groundbreaking, and now classic book he described the Medicine Wheel:

Among the People, a child's first Teaching is of the Four Great Powers of the Medicine Wheel.

To the North on the Medicine Wheel is found Wisdom. The Color of the Wisdom of the North is White, and its Medicine Animal is the Buffalo.

The South is represented by the Sign of the Mouse, and its Medicine Color is Green. The South is a place of Innocence and Trust, and is for perceiving closely our nature of heart.

In the West is the Sign of the Bear. The West is the Looks-Within Place, which speaks of the Introspective nature of man. The Color of this Place is Black.

The East is marked by the Sign of the Eagle. It is the Place of Illumination, where we can see things clearly far and wide. Its Color is the Gold of the Morning Star.

At birth, each of us given a particular Beginning Place within these Four Great Directions on the Medicine Wheel. This Starting Place gives us our first way of perceiving things, which will then be our easiest and more natural way throughout our lives.

But any person who perceives from only one of these Four Great Directions will remain just a partial man. For example, a man who possesses only the Gift of the North will be wise. But he will be a cold man, a man without feeling. And the man who lives only in the East will have the clear, far sighted vision of the Eagle, but he will never be close to things. This man will feel separated, high above life, and will never understand or believe that he can be touched by anything.

A man or woman who perceives only from the West will go over the same thought again and again in their mind, and will always be undecided. And if a person has only the Gift of the South, he will see everything with the eyes of a Mouse. He will be too close to the ground and too near sighted to see anything except whatever is right in front of him, touching his whiskers.

There are many people who have two or three of these Gifts, but these people still are not Whole. A man might be a Bear person from the East, or an Eagle person from the South. The first of these men would have the Gift of seeing Introspectively within Illumination, but he would lack the Gifts of Touching and Wisdom. The second would be able to see clearly and far, like the Eagle, within Trust and Innocence. But he would still not know of the things of the North, nor of the looks-Within Place.

In this same way, a person might also be a Golden Bear of the North, or a Black Eagle of the South. But none of these people would yet be Whole. After each of us has learned of our Beginning Gift, our First Place on the Medicine Wheel, we then must Grow by Seeking Understanding in each of the Four Great Ways. Only in this way can we become Full, capable of Balance and Decision in what we do."

The Medicine Wheel metaphor helped me realize that one's Beginning Place, a strong and original orientation or first nature, could also be a negative influence in attaining the goal of Wholeness or Balance.

Jung’s Personality Types

This resonated with the notion of the Shadow I had already learned from Carl Jung's archetypal/analytical psychology. "Own your Shadow” is a mantra of Jungian psychology.

The Jungian notion of the life-long psychic journey through the archetypes to the true or whole Self, what he called the process of Individuation, gives good insight into the religious journey. It gives incredible depth to the aphorism "Trust Thyself."

What has persuaded me about the practical value of the Jungian scheme is an uncanny Personality Inventory, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator that uses Jung's psychological types to hone in on an individual's distinct personality type.

The Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) uses four categories of paired attributes to come up with 16 different personality types. First used in 1942, the MBTI is now well established, extensively field tested and tweaked, and usually uncanny in describing personality traits and in predicting behavior, even religious behavior.

The four categories of the MBTI relate to·

  • how a person faces the world either as an Extrovert or an Introvert;
  • how a person’s perceives the world either through the Senses or iNtuition;
  • how a person processes those perceptions by Thinking or Feeling;
  • and how a person acts on the world either by Judging (convergent conclusions) or Feeling (divergent conclusions.)

Here's a chart showing the sixteen personality types and the percentages of those types in the general population: [see illustration at head of sermon]

Now, the MBTI is valuable in generally navigating the world. It gives very helpful information regarding relationships--personal, work, social, and so on. And thanks to the insight and research of a UU ministerial colleague, Peter Tufts Richardson, it is an essential resource for anyone who is intent about her or his religious orientation and life journey through the ages and stages. Richardson's 1996 book Four Spiritualities has taken the two cognitive (mental) categories of the MBTI to describe four basic spiritual orientations. The cognitive functions relate to how we perceive the world either through the senses or though intuition and how we process information through thinking or feeling.

Peter Tufts Richardson talks about these four spiritualities he identifies in terms of a journey, to impart a sense that these are not hard and fast determiners, but more fluid influences, themselves shaped by the journey. The four spiritual journeys are

  • the NT's journey of unity, 12% of the population
  • the SF's journey of devotion,38% of the population
  • the ST's journey of works, 38% of the population
  • and the NF's journey of harmony, 12% of the population

1FrFrom Jungian psychology, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, and especially Richardson's Four Spiritualities I find a persuasive argument:

First, we each have a native—inborn—way of relating to the world, perceiving it and acting upon it. That way has implications for our spiritual nature relative to our religious experiences and their ongoing effects. We cannot help but be less or more true to our native spiritual way, however, awareness and intentionality can magnify this dimension of our being.

Second, there is not a one size fits all spirituality. Indeed, spiritual orientation is varied and significantly different. There is not one right way. Each way is appropriate.

Third, we can all learn from one another and even experiment with the practices of other personality types. I think that this speaks to a certain malleability that is the mark of a wise quester. (In Native American spirituality, this involves travelling around the Medicine Wheel. In Jungian psychology it is the process of Individuation.)

Fourth, and generally regarding your religious journey: Know your spiritual type. Be true to it. But don’t cling too tightly. All else will fall into place as your journey carries you forward.

An Opportunity to Know Thyself

Thanks to Norah Blackaller, who is trained in giving and interpreting the MBTI, you have the opportunity to discover (or for those who've taken it before, to reevaluate) your personality type in a special three week UCH seminar. The first week the inventory will be administered and Jungian personality type theory generally explained. The second week your results will be illuminated relative to the sixteen categories--how your specific type relates you to the world and how you interact with other types and they with you. This second part is usually full of ahas--startling little moments of self-realization. The third week, when you have knowledge of your personality type, I'll explore with you Richardson's scheme of Four Spiritualities. You'll learn how your personality type bends you to a certain spiritual journey and what the aspects of that journey are. (There is a small fee of $20 for the MBTI test materials. And there's a signup sheet with a handout regarding the MBTI at the visitors' table in the Living Room.)

If you are a quester, and who among us isn't? I maintain you must know and trust thyself. This January you have the means to know thyself, and you’ll be given the encouragement to follow thy particular path—thy spiritual journey. I hope you'll take advantage of the opportunity. What a good way to begin a new year!

1 comment:

  1. I really wanted to go to this, but January was out of the question(knee surgery, ya know), hopefully it will be "replayed" at a later date!