A few days ago I had the good fortune to attend a workshop by noted Buddhist scholar Steven Goodman, a professor of Asian Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Mixed in with excellent overviews of Buddhism’s view of the human condition (unenlightened and full of suffering!) were questions and ideas about why Buddhism generally says so little about that big psychological factor/issue for us Westerners, “personality.”
I found this fascinating, as I see “personality” – we’ll define it in a minute – as a primary user of our psychological and spiritual energies, and a shaper of our perceptions, thoughts and feelings. My own special area in graduate school half a century ago was called Personality. What is this “personality?” There are many definitions, but I think we can stay with the common sense idea, namely “The assemblage of qualities or characteristics which makes a person a distinctive individual; the (esp. notable or appealing) distinctive character of a person.” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) Clearly one could have personality characteristics that make life generally easier for you and others, such as being friendly, helpful, courteous (my old Boy Scout oath is coming back to me!) or habitual personality characteristics that create suffering for you and others, such as being temperamental, moody, unpredictable, aggressive, etc. I would call the suffering that results from these kinds of personality characteristics as “unnecessary” or “useless,” since if you didn’t exhibit them life would flow more smoothly. We all know people whose personality, whose habits of perceiving, thinking, feeling and expression create a lot of trouble in their lives.
The insights of Gautama Buddha (insofar as I understand them) were at a more basic level than personality, though. Liberation from unnecessary suffering comes from learning to observe three basic, fundamental forces controlling us, namely Attraction, Aversion, and Ignorance. I agree. From my personal observations, as well as scientific and scholarly knowledge, these are fundamental driving us. “Personality,” by contrast, is a more emergent level of these forces, it’s a systems emergent. (A systems emergent can sometimes be seen as an obvious result of combining more basic factors, but sometimes it’s a complex emergent, what emerges has properties that don’t obviously follow from the components – this gets complex and we won’t follow this further here.) By analogy, personality is like knowing how to use Word, the word processing program I’m using right now to express myself, but underneath is a more basic programming language running the computer, MS-DOS, and underneath that is a binary programming language actually running the computer. These more basic languages are normally completely invisible to me. Word is taking over my screen/consciousness. Personality normally grabs up all our consciousness and makes it difficult to see more fundamental processes underneath…..
Now all my life I’ve been curious about how the way my mind and emotions work, and I had made a zillion miscellaneous observations and theories about it. But, as I could see in retrospect, I was caught up practically all the time in the systems emergent, my personality, which in turn affected the kinds of observations I was likely to make and the way I would think about them.
Discovering back in the 70s that I was a type Seven on the Enneagram of Personality (you can find lots about this system on the web or in Helen Palmer’s books) was an incredible shock and liberation. A friend (another Seven) described psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo’s psychologized enneagram system to me and when he got to type Seven it all resonated. Of course! This was the pattern that bound all those miscellaneous observations together! And this pattern had a “taste” to it, it was something I could learn to sense in operation and, eventually, exercise some control over. Years of self-observation and other work helped me work toward the particular virtue for type Sevens, the virtue of Sobriety, and I finally felt I had developed a fair amount of it. I’ve reached a point in life where I know I’m still basically a Seven, but that’s more a style now than an automated compulsion, and I can, when needed, put it aside.
Is it any coincidence that before discovering my personality type I was lousy at attempting “meditation?” Just speculating here, I don’t have enough data to push the idea, but it may well be that enough of my attention became liberated from compulsive Sevenish patterns that now I could observe myself at that more fundamental level of sensation and feeling, and more clearly see the basic Buddhist forces of Attraction, Aversion and Ignorance……
I’m cautious about sweeping generalizations, but there must be at least some other people like me who would really benefit from working at the personality level first, then be able to go on to the more fundamental forces level…..One of the jobs of the field of Transpersonal Psychology, as I envision it, is to learn to tell when, e.g., a person would be better off working at the personality level than at a classical meditation level.
In the bits of Buddhism I’ve been exposed to – Sogyal Rinpoche, Tsoknye Rinpoche, Shinzen Young primarily, and assorted vipassana teachers – I haven’t seen any real grappling with this personality issue. But then I’m learning in speaking and writing to always qualify anything I say about Buddhism as just my limited exposure and take on it, as somewhere and somewhen there will be some “Buddhists” who do the opposite or something different…. 😉
Incidentally I appreciate the wisdom of Buddhism in ignoring and subrating personality as a strategy for not being so caught up in our personality, our “story,” but we shouldn’t confuse learning strategies and realities…..
So an interesting direction to go in…..