The appeal of esoteric systems


I’ve been taking a lot of yoga lately—good for the soul, the digestion, and the IT bands, which I didn’t know I have but which apparently are quite important. Besides, I live in Portland, where there are more yoga studios than churches and probably more Wiccans than Christians, so it’s sort of compulsory. I’ve been shining my heart center, opening up my side channels, and generally cultivating a taste for yoga-teacher talk, some of which is beautifully poetic. “This is the part of yoga where we practice dying,” one of my teachers says before shavasana. “Every time we breathe in,” another says, “we begin again.”

I’ve been hearing a lot about prana, of course, breath, as well as more esoteric entities like the lower dantian, the seat of qi, the life force, in Chinese medicine. You can get sucked in by this kind of stuff. You go home, look up a couple of terms, and pretty soon you’re hip-deep in chakras, nadis, and doshas. One thing leads to another. The doshas, in Ayurvedic thought, are like the humours, substances that regulate the bodily functions and determine the basic personality types. So now you’re looking up the humours, which are just a click or two away from alchemy, then astrology, then Theosophy, and pretty soon you’re on to Gurdjieffian enneagrams and the Myers-Briggs personality test, which derives from Jungian psychology.

Breathe. What do all these systems have in common, and why are they so fascinating, even to the skeptic? They make order from the chaos of the world. The anatomical parts I can do without, except as curiosities or spiritual metaphors. Whatever the flaws of Western medicine, it’s a lot more persuasive to me than turmeric, the kundalini, or the channel that runs from my right nostril to my left testicle, even if it does correspond to the River Yamuna. Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, the esoteric anatomy of the subtle body: all arose before the discovery of genes, or cells, or microbes, or molecules. How much can they know? Most damning, for me, is that they’re no longer subject to change or correction. I’m a sucker for falsifiability. If it can’t be wrong, it can’t be right.

But the parts that have to do with personality—those are a little different. For all of its huffing and puffing, science has made little progress when it comes to human psychology, and certainly when it comes to reducing it to any kind of order. Just look at the mess of the DSM-V. We throw around various terms—“on the spectrum,” “anal retentive,” “narcissistic,” “OCD”—but still don’t really have an organized way of making sense of what we care about the most: other people, and even more, ourselves.

Hence the appeal of the systems. Myers-Briggs will give you a simple questionnaire, then slot you into one of 16 types. You know (because you probably took it at some point yourself): “ISTJ,” “ENFP,” and so forth. The Keirsey Temperament Sorter, which is based on Myers-Briggs, will even give your type a sexy name. Are you a Healer, a Mastermind, perhaps a Fieldmarshal? Or look at the Enneagram. Go ahead, look—I’ll wait. See how fun that was? You don’t just get a list of types, you get a complete table—“ego fixation,” “holy idea,” “basic fear,” your whole being elucidated and set in its place, the entire human world made explicable. It’s like those fabulous medieval systems where everything lines up in groups of fours and sevens and nines, beautiful cathedrals and divine comedies that bespeak belief in an intelligent creator.

Of course, it’s all bullshit. The human psyche is much too complex and variable to be reduced to such schemes, even with their inevitable footnotes and epicycles. Calling someone a Healer (or a “caregiver,” for that matter) is about as useful as calling them a Capricorn. Which is why, when I’ve spent my hour with the chakras, I return to the only thing that’s capable of representing, with any kind of cogency or depth, the human soul: literature. There you will find not types but individuals, in all their unpredictable uniqueness, their myriad conflicting acts and motives. No order, no system—just truth.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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