Personality types. They’re like masks. They reveal and conceal at the same time. Products of nature in combination with nurture, they give us something to see the world through, and to be seen. They grant us a particular means of communicating; they incline us to care about certain things and not other things; they represent a vital avenue for experience and learning. Which leads to an irony. For to the degree that our personality masks settle on our faces and seem completely and utterly natural, we forget that we are, in fact, wearing a mask, or that others may be wearing different masks leading them to see the world in very different ways, to communicate differently, or to care differently. It gets us into trouble.
Consider the following incident, in which two people, Sheryl and Steve, are going to a meeting here at UUCA, and Sheryl asks Steve a very simple question, “What time is it?” What follows is like an episode of Abbot and Costello, a comedy of miscommunication. Steve replies, “It’s late,” but Sheryl has the kind of personality which prefers concreteness and exactitude of detail, so she responds, “No, I mean, what time is it?” Which confuses Steve, because he thinks he IS being to the point, although given his different personality, being to the point is a matter of clear imagery and intuitive vision. So he says back to Sheryl, “It’s time to go!” but with even greater insistence than before, thinking that will do the trick. It doesn’t, and now Sheryl is getting frustrated, and she says, “Hey, read my lips, what time is it?” When Steve replies, in a miffed tone, “It’s past three,” all heck breaks loose. “Listen,” says Sheryl, “I shouldn’t have to ask a simple question four times to get an adequate answer. How MUCH past three? What time is it EXACTLY?” To which Steve replies, “You are so picky. The time EXACTLY is 3:12pm, Eastern Standard Timezone, planet earth, solar system, outer arm of the Milky Way Galaxy!”
It’s a comedy of miscommunication. Two people hearing exactly the same question—“What time is it?”—but each approaching the answer differently. One prefers down-to-earth exactitude and specificity, the other prefers evocative imagery and future-oriented metaphors which can float above the ground. Personality types are real—vital avenues of expression and experience—but we can lose sight of this undeniable reality and fail to accommodate for the masks we wear in our relationships. The result is high drama. The stuff of soap opera.
It happens at home; it happens at work; and you better believe it happens in congregations like this one. Of course, when clashes and conflicts happen in congregations, we get extremely nervous. We think something has turned terribly wrong, since isn’t religious community the one place where we’re all supposed to be singing Kumbaya together, and all is spontaneous mutual understanding and peace and harmony?
It’s an unexamined expectation that so many of us bring to a place like this, and it can’t be farther from the truth. This is a home for the human spirit, and the human spirit brings with it variety and diversity, of all kinds. Meaning that, in the course of our taking this diversity and uniting it to serve common goals and common purposes, things heat up. That’s what happens, if a congregation is working right. If it’s NOT working right, things stay cold and clammy. Sluggish. People stuck in their usual sense of who they are, and what’s possible. No risks. No enthusiasms. No one united by a transforming cause. People entirely justified in saying “it’s not worth it” and walking away. But if a congregation IS working right, it heats us up. Takes us to difficult places. Takes us deeper. Causes us to care, to discern a higher calling. Gives us something worth fighting for. Charges us full with the electric charge of the soul. There is no better symbol of how congregations that work do this than our Flaming Chalice. The flame is the heat and the fire of our life together. Things are supposed to get hot, in a place like this. No wonder conflict can happen.
It’s just a natural consequence of being in a vital spiritual community. Natural, normal, necessary, and also this: neutral in value. What matters is not so much that we can disagree and feel frustrated by eachother as how we manage these disagreements and frustrations. How we respond.
Today I want to talk about personality types as they impact congregations. Different personality types give rise to different spiritual styles—so what are the different styles? How is each a valid way of connecting with the Sacred? And, when they clash, what can we do to respond in a manner that is creative and constructive? That’s my message today.
Beginning with the basic spiritual styles. Historically, there are many sources of insight about this we could look to—astrology being one of the oldest, together with the four classic temperaments (phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic, and sanguine). We could also look to the Enneagram, as well as to Carl Jung’s system of psychological types. Of the theories I’ve studied, one of my favorites continues to be Hinduism’s system of the four yogas—thousands of years old and yet still influential and credible. Very much worth a closer look.
Now when I say “yoga,” what might immediately come to mind is certain distinctive physical postures. But the word as I’m using it—its original sense—has a far larger meaning. Literally, it means, “to bring under disciplined training,” and right there we have an inkling of what we’re getting ourselves into. Each of the four yogas incorporates activities and practices that are uniquely effective for a particular personality type, in its quest for spiritual fulfillment. We’re not talking about a casual stroll along a garden path, in other words, and the thought of this is in itself significant, for there are times when life, completely without warning, challenges us to run a sprint, or a marathon. On the spur of the moment, it can require us to lift 300 pounds of deadweight. It can throw all sorts of stuff our way, and unless we are already actively developing our spiritual muscles, how can we expect to last or cope effectively? How are we gonna run our race, or lift that weight, if we aren’t actively training for it right now?
“Yoga” means “spiritual workout,” and the first one to consider is the Yoga of the Rational Mind. Here, the central discipline is intellectual adventure. If you are a follower of this way—if you are a Rational Mind yogi—then you seek out all the wisdom you can find: in scripture, in science, in philosophy, in history, in literature, in the arts, and on and on. The marketplace of ideas must be free, for you; scholarship is your true love; study is your cup of tea; and your core spiritual practice may very well be … underlining. You are the kind of person who’s always asking questions, doubting, challenging conventional understandings, and always game for looking into a new idea or a new way. But with a main purpose. Not to parrot the wisdom of others, but to use conscience and reason to separate the good from the bad and fashion a worldview that rings true for you, makes sense of your experience. Gives order to the complexities of life.
The Yoga of the Rational Mind. It stresses step-by-step logical reasoning as well as conceptual clarity and linguistic precision. Rational Mind yogis are the people who would rather stand outside of heaven and talk about it than step on in. In fact, that is their heaven. Realizing through critical discussion and thought the truth that sets us free.
That’s the first Hindu yoga, and now here is the second: the Yoga of Transcending Mind. It’s very different. People on this path are generally active types, and they tend to be impatient with the theoretical and abstract. As far as they are concerned, head knowledge distorts rather than clarifies. Language does to the world what a funhouse mirror does to reflections. Others might pride themselves on their intellectual scholarship and be right at home with that, but not Transcending Mind yogis. They want something more body-centered, practical disciplines that calm “monkey mind” down and connect them to a peace that is above and beyond all words and theories. I’m talking about a capacity of awareness that is like a calm eye over the storm of our thoughts and feelings, an eye that’s always there, always, but we have to learn how to see through it, we have to calm “monkey mind” down to do that.
If this resonates with you, then more reading and more speculating are beside the point. No more talk. Action. So, as a Transcending Mind yogi, you will practice “asanas,” or physical postures that cleanse the body and develop the mind’s ability to concentrate. You will say a “mantra” or a sacred sound over and over again, throughout your day, to keep you centered and focused. You may meditate on your breathing or focus on a visual form like a candle flame, or a picture of a saint, or a mandala. Note, again, how all of this emphasizes a form of spirituality that is body-centered, image- and sound-centered, all to the end of experiencing first-hand the reality beyond all distinctions and difference, the bliss of no-thingness. You don’t want to just talk about heaven. You want to do heaven, be heaven!
That’s the Yoga of Transcending Mind. But now let us turn to yet another spiritual style: the Yoga of Service. If this is your preferred style, by now what you might be saying to yourself is this: something like, “Good Lord! What’s up with how Rational Mind yogis are constantly challenging the status quo or living in their heads? And as for Transcending Mind yogis—why would I ever want to twist up like a pretzel or chant all day OM? Seems totally beside the point. I mean, I just want a way of being at peace while I’m trying to be a good parent, or a good employee, or a good friend, or a good citizen. Nothing fancy. I want to work within the world, not outside of it. I want to work within the system, not buck it. I want to find the sacred right here, in the ordinary.”
That’s what Service yogis say. Stability and structure are their watchwords; they’re the ones paying attention to detail and rolling up their sleeves to make our communities happen. So naturally, for them, the central discipline is everyday work done with the right intention and without any expectation for certain results. Selflessness while paying the bills or commuting to the job or doing the laundry. One of the most popular scriptures of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, says it like this: “He who does the task dictated by duty, caring nothing for the fruit of the action: he is a yogi.” This is how, in the midst of life’s wear and tear and busy-ness, the Service yogi attains peace.
And now: the last of the four yogas: the Yoga of Love. Short and sweet: if this is your spiritual style, you are a people person. You are on a search for authenticity and uniqueness, and you want this for everyone else as well. You want to make everyone feel important and cared for, and you just want there to be harmony in the world, you peacemaker you.
People are so central to your path that, when you imagine the sacred, it must have a face. Your God is a personal God. And so your central spiritual practice is devotion. You will choose an image of God which is right for you. Perhaps an image of the Goddess like Kwan Yin, perhaps Jesus, perhaps Krishna. Some concrete image—and whatever it happens to be, you will open your total heart to him or to her. You want to fall in love. “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” That is the discipline precisely. Out of this love, you will study, you will practice asanas, you will chant, you will care for the hurting, you will do the work of justice, you will fulfill your everyday duties selflessly. But the motivation is, first and last, love.
Same motivation goes, even if you don’t believe in a God per se. Fact is, the Yoga of Love, like all the yogas, cuts across theological categories like theism and atheism. If there is no such thing as a God for you, then the face of the sacred will be beloved family and friends, a hero like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. who has inspired you, people who belong to your chosen spiritual community (like UUCA), or the living earth. Out of love for these, you live fully and freely.
And there they are, the four yogas. Rational Mind, Transcending Mind, Service, Love. Four spiritual styles, for four different kinds of personalities. Each equally valid, as a way of connecting with the Spirit of Life. Keep in mind that the idea here is not that one and only one yoga will appeal to you—just that you will feel most at home in one, and make the most progress working in one, even if at times you might borrow some ideas and practices from the others.
Let’s take an even closer look. Worship preferences are extremely concrete and practical, so let’s see what each yoga might bring to this. Beginning with Rational Mind yogis, who might say, “Boy, I love intellectual-type sermons with lots of vocab words that get me thinking and give me something to talk about over lunch! I love the purity and complexity of classical music. But what’s up all the rituals, or the prayer? I don’t get it when the music for the day is drumming, or folk, or rock. I don’t like it when things feel too fuzzy and gooey and emotional and ‘spiritual.’ Makes it harder for me to focus. Makes it harder to read the song lyrics ahead of time so that I can be sure to sing only the words that make sense to me…”
As for Transcending Mind yogis, this is what they might say: “It’s just not worship if I don’t feel immersed in something larger than me. Give me spirituality, give me ‘smells and bells.’ Give me more ritual—I love getting out of my head and into the flow of an experience. Love our annual Water Communion and Moravian Love Feast and Flower Communion. Loved the Breaking Bread Ritual from this past Thanksgiving. Even something as small as getting up and greeting each other feels good. More meditation, though—I wish it lasted a lot longer than it usually does. How about five minutes? Ten minutes? And, have we ever thought about doing some chanting? Sometimes I think we could learn a thing or two from the Episcopalians down the road….”
Service yogis, for their part, might say this: “I love all the rituals too. Classical music is beautiful, but I feel more moved by drumming, or jazz, or folk, or rock. I just feel more at home in worship when we play music that’s similar to what I already listen to. As for sermons: honestly, the artsy-fartsy intellectual ones just don’t turn my crank. I like the ones that focus on life skills instead, on how to be a better partner, or parent, or citizen. Show me how! Finally—have we ever thought about regularly incorporating multimedia in our worship? I was at another church that projected the hymn lyrics on big screens in the sanctuary—they even showed a film clip from a popular movie where we would do a straight-ahead reading. At first I was skeptical, but I walked away amazed at how powerful the effect was—even more amazed at how my kids loved it….”
And then there’s what Love yogis might say: “I need a worship experience that really gets my blood flowing. Give me inspiration. I can do a sermon that is intellectual, I can do a sermon that is practical, but don’t forget to elevate it into poetry, and use lots of stories. As for clapping: I know it bumps some people out of the flow of worship, and I totally respect that, but for me it works. It makes me feel warm and good, and gets me into the flow of things. Finally, I love it when we all stand up and hold hands to close out our service!”
This is just a bare sketch of the different preferences the four yogas bring—and you can already see the potential for disagreement and conflict. Things heating up into our Flaming Chalice. While a Love yogi, for example, is perfectly comfortable with language that is evocative and poetic, a Rational Mind yogi insists on clarity. “What does ‘spirituality’ mean, anyway? Define your terms! Stop being so fuzzy and vague! How can I wrap my mind around things when I’m having a hard time perceiving a hard core there?” To this, a yogi of the Transcending Mind will say, “Come on! You’re just stirring up a tempest in a tea pot! Ultimately the sacred is a more-than-what’s-before-the-eyes-Mystery—every word and name is just like a finger pointing at the moon. So let’s not argue about our fingers. Let’s focus on the moon!” To which the Love yogi replies, “I agree where you say that ultimately the sacred is a Mystery, and all words and names for it fall short. But when you suggest that it is OK to be casual with words and names—especially traditional words and names—I can’t go there. As imperfect and fuzzy a word like God might be, I still need it. I can’t grow spiritually without it.” To which a Service yogi will say, “Would you all just get your act together and make up your minds? How are we gonna fulfill our mission in the world if all our energy is tied up in fighting?”
And that IS the central question. It brings to mind a personal story from my seminary years, when my colleagues and I were studying worship—what it’s all about, how to craft it. I found myself admitting to my class that I’d always been a bit cranky about the worships I’d experienced. Rarely had I experienced a service that satisfied me completely in all ways and didn’t leave me grumbling on the way out. There was always some element or other that struck me as pointless or irritating or not as good as what some other church was doing. To this, my worship professor at the time—the saintly Rev. David Bumbaugh—said, “Anthony, nothing can live up to your kind of standard, if you feel entitled to being satisfied completely by everything that happens in a given service. Instead, I would have you define success like this: If a worship service has touched you in at least one deep way, that is enough to have made it a success. Be positive and look for the one thing that will feed your soul; let all else pass. And know that the parts which are unimportant to you—perhaps even offensive to you—may very likely be feeding the souls of others.”
I continue to think that this is a wonderful attitude to have—one constructive way of responding to the disagreements over worship that are inevitable and will never end, given the different spiritual styles in the room. Stepping back from a sense of entitlement and stepping up to a sense of generosity and a willingness to be OK with something you might not prefer exactly because you know that it could very well be beautiful and meaningful for the person sitting right beside you.
Besides this, another thing to keep in mind as we face disagreement and conflict together is this: the idea that personality differences, while deep, are not absolute. People with different styles can learn to understand and even to sympathize with each other; people on different yoga paths can learn tremendous things from each other. It’s just like being right-handed—you’ve been using your right hand all your life to write and wave and do so many other things. But with conscious effort and patience, you can learn to shift over to using your left. It’s awkward. It takes time. But it can happen, and the result is a good thing: you’ve just multiplied your power in the world. Now you can do things with both hands, not just one. Similarly, when a given personality type learns to walk in the shoes of another personality type, what happens is greater wholeness. We grow towards greater wholeness in our lives. We become less one-sided, more compassionate, more complete.
Conflict comes with the territory. In spiritual communities like this one, it’s natural, normal, necessary, and neutral in value. What matters is how we respond. “Do not teach your children never to be angry,” someone once said. “Teach them how to be angry.” That’s what our Congregational Covenant of Healthy Relationships is all about. That’s what the Healthy Relationships Team is all about. Helping us face down the challenge of life in community as it does its proper job of heating things up, charging us full with the electric charge of the soul. We need to learn how to stand in this fire. We need to assume a stance of curiosity towards both ourselves and the other person or the situation. Not self-righteous certainty. But curiosity. “I wonder what my spiritual style is, that I would have such a negative reaction to that?” “I wonder what spiritual style she is speaking out of?” Asking questions like this. Valuing questions like this, as a necessary part of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist.
I’ll close with a story told by Anthony de Mello, Catholic priest and psychotherapist:
In ancient India, water used to be drawn out of wells by means of the Persian wheel, a convenient device whose only drawback was the great noise it made when in operation. One day, a horseman happened to pass by a farm and demanded water for his horse. The farmer gladly put the Persian wheel in motion, but the horse, unaccustomed as it was to the noise, wouldn’t come anywhere near the well. “Can’t you stop the noise so my horse can drink?” asked the horseman. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible, sir,” said the farmer. “If your horse wishes to drink, he will have to take the water with the noise, for here [HERE], water comes only with noise.”