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Buddhist Personality Types and Meditation
In his text Visuddhimagga, or 'Path to Purity’, fifth-century Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa devotes a section to the 'six types of persons'. Each type corresponds to one dominant characteristic, and these characteristics are grouped into three pairs, each representing a 'wholesome' and 'unwholesome' manifestation of a certain tendency. The three pairings are greed and faith, anger and intelligence, and confusion and equanimity. The unwholesome manifestation in each pairing corresponds to one of the three poisons - the root delusions that separate us from our own enlightenment.
Buddhaghosa teaches that although we each may display all six characteristics, we tend to manifest one more than the others, and we may swing between the wholesome and unwholesome reflections of that characteristic, depending on our level of self-awareness. Part of the value in knowing which type we are is that Buddhaghosa recommends certain meditation techniques for each one. Working with the most appropriate meditation techniques for our temperament can help us transform from the unwholesome to wholesome reflection of that type, for example, from greedy to faithful, from angry to intelligent, or from confused to clear. Through our practice, we can transform what might otherwise be our greatest spiritual challenge into our greatest spiritual gift.
One of the most useful methods for determining what type you are is to contemplate how you react when confronted with something new, whether it be a new material object, person, place, or even situation. Is your first reaction usually covetous ('I want that too'), critical ('Look at everything wrong with that'), or vacillating ('Ooh, I like that…on the other hand, look at that flaw…but wait, it is nice…')?
Those with greed/faith tendencies react with attraction. If you are of this type, you are drawn to the new thing, and instantly see all of its good qualities. On the surface, this might seem like a positive trait - a gift for finding the good in anyone or anything. However, it can easily twist into a desire to possess the object of attraction. This might translate into material greediness, which is what we usually understand 'greed' to mean. But it can also mean emotional greediness – a need to dominate the attention of those in your lives, or collect friends at any cost. Or it could manifest as a greediness for new experiences - a constant restless pursuit of the perfect vacation, trendiest new hobby, or even spiritual experiences.
Individuals of this type are advised to meditate on impermanence. By recognizing the inherent transience of all objects and experiences, you can break your mind's addiction to seeking external stimuli for happiness. One formal Buddhist meditation on impermanence involves visualizing a decomposing corpse (including your own!), but if that doesn't appeal, you can simply contemplate the arising and cessation of various sensations within your own body. Realizing nothing lasts forever will loosen the grip of greed, and help you redirect your attraction tendencies into faith in those things in your life that really have some lasting, intrinsic value.
While individuals of the greed/faith type react with attraction to new things, those of the anger/intelligence type react with repulsion, or at least distance. If you are of this type, your first reaction to something new is likely to be skeptical or suspicious. You are likely to look for flaws, or reasons something won't work or can't be true. You might frequently feel let down by others, and develop a simmering anger or resentment. In its worst form, this tendency manifests as hatred – the ultimate form of pushing something away.
However, your ability to see flaws – something not natural for the greedy/faith types – can also help you develop the foundation for true intelligence. You can utilize your tendency to distance yourself from things in order to analyze them fully, but to do this you need to overcome your tendency to initially respond negatively. Meditating on loving-kindness is the advised method for this personality type. By focusing on your connection to all beings – first those dear to you and over time, all beings - you can begin to dissolve your tendencies towards repulsion, and redirect your critical abilities into analytical ones.
If neither the greed/faith nor the anger/intelligence descriptions seem to fit you (or if both do!) you might be of the confused/equanimity type. This type tends to vacillate when confronted with something new, swinging from one opinion to another. You are particularly susceptible to the opinions of others, and your own view tends to change in accordance with what those around you in the moment think. You might have difficulty making decisions, or second-guess yourself as a matter of course once you do. You might have difficulty finishing projects, and you might have a tendency towards a particularly busy mind, as you are always spinning through different scenarios and options.
The advised methods of meditation for this type are forms that strengthen single-pointed concentration, such as simple breath meditation. By developing your ability to slow and center your mind, you can develop equanimity – a peaceful detachment from sensations and experiences that enables true inner wisdom to arise. Equanimity is not an emotionless state, but instead a state in which emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations are allowed to arise and pass through your awareness without either attraction or repulsion gripping them.
For an accessible translation of the full Visuddhimagga, try the one found in Edward Conze’s Buddhist Scriptures. For a more contemporary interpretation, try the corresponding chapter in Sharon Salzberg’s A Heart as Wide as the World.
Content copyright © 2015 by Lisa Erickson. All rights reserved.
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