Finding a Spiritual Practice that Is Right for Us 1

Spiritual practice of woman walking labyrinth Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

A Contemplative Spirituality

When I was a child, I wanted to be a nun. Since I was a Unitarian Universalist, this didn’t seem likely. Still, I loved the idea of sitting all day and contemplating. Not that that’s what I did all the time. I ran, climbed, splashed, sang, played kick ball, and bicycled through the neighborhood. But I also daydreamed, or gazed at the brook, or listened to the sounds trees made, or read fairy tales, or wrote poetry.

Not a bad life, and I wanted that part my childhood to continue, so I imagined myself cloistered away someplace beautiful, with echoing rooms, mystical stained glass windows, a stream outside that was lined with bushes and flowers, and maybe a nature path to walk along. I’d get to write, sing, and sit in trees.

For that was my spiritual practice. I loved being and doing and losing myself in the vastness that united me with life and spirit and that essence people called God.

Spiritual practice of woman walking labyrinth Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

Extrovers, Introverts, Sensers, Intuitives

This is the classic Intuitive-Feeler (NF) spirituality. In his book Four Spiritualities, Peter Tufts Richardson divides the spiritual path into four main preferences that correspond to the four Myers-Briggs function pairs. [1]

Developed by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, the Myers-Briggs typology instrument (MBTI) identifies sixteen different personality types. Each type is identified by four letters, and those four letters chosen from among eight possible ways of approaching life.

The first pair is E (extroversion) and I (introversion). These two letters reflect our preference for external or internal reality. Do we get energy from interacting with others and engaging with the world around us? If so, we’re extroverted. Introverts need time alone to recharge, and they are fascinated by the internal world of thoughts and feelings.

Next we have the S (sensing) and N (intuitive) pair. This couple explains how we gather information. Do we notice the physical space around us and focus on facts and details? If so, we’re sensing. Intuitive types, on the other hand, miss details, but notice their impressions, the emotional resonance of a situation, the patterns and abstractions.

Thinkers, Feelers, Judgers, Perceivers

The third letter pair is T (thinking) and F (feeling). This is how we prefer to make decisions. Do we put most weight for our decision on logic and fairness, like the impartial thinker? Or do we, like the feeler, emphasize relationships and how an action will effect people?

Finally, we have the J (judging) and P (perceiving) pair. The judging type isn’t necessarily judgmental. This MBTI pair is about how a person behaves in the world. Judging types like order and closure. They’re organized and task-oriented. Perceiving types, on the other hand, prefer the spontaneous, unplanned life.  If they could get away with it, they might never never decide anything because they like to keep their options open. [2]

Many Spiritual Paths

To a greater or lesser degree, we each fit within one of the sixteen types. When we combine the two inside letters, we make four function pairs: NT, ST, NF, SF. A function pair identifies our preferred way of understanding and interacting with the world.

These function pairs are what Richardson used to develop his four modes of spiritual expression. If you don’t know your type, you can find many free tests online. If you’re willing to pay for it, you can take the official one here. Having undergone decades of review and standardizing, it may be the most accurate.

You don’t have to take the test, however, to realize that we each have a way of connecting to spirit, of understanding the unseen and mystical side of life, and of practicing a faith, whether that faith is Catholicism, Vodun, or Humanism. Sometimes we think there’s a “right” way to live out our faith, but Richardson’s book makes it clear this isn’t so.

Intuitive-Thinkers

Because NTs love to ponder and analyze, they write a lot of books about mystical and spiritual reflection and oneness, so we might think their way is the best way. After all, they’re the teachers. They encourage education, clarity, voluntary simplicity, mindfulness, and ideas that organize all wisdom into one grand truth. This personality type believes in justice and reforming society.

An NT might like zen meditation or lectio divina, which is a meditative focus on a passage of scripture. Resisting unjust powers is important to them, so they will not be satisfied with an internal transformation. They will also want to change society.

Sensing-Feelers

While also interested in justice, SFs encourage, not reform, but charity. They pursue good works and donate money to help the poor. Attracted to heroes and story, they honor the past. They feel no need to explore and examine “truth” on their own. They trust their teachers, whether Ramakrishna, Jesus, Mohammed, or their own rabbi or pastor. Devoted to helping others, SFs live out their faith through service.

Appreciating the practical, they go on pilgrimages, volunteer in soup kitchens, build altars  to honor their ancestors, and ground their journey in joyful activity like whirling dances or drumming.

Sensing-Thinkers

Like their SF cousins, STs like the hands-on religious life. They also enjoy traditions, and love ritual. From covenants, laws, and commandments they derive their values, and they act from a sense of duty and righteousness. SFs know who they are within their community. They identify with the tribe, are realistic, and see honest work as life’s purpose.

You might find an ST volunteering in a hospital or prison, but less from the SFs sense of love and devotion as because their scripture tells them to. They recite the prayers they’ve been taught, sing the old hymns, and dance the sacred dances of their community. Unlike NTs who seek innovation, STs prefer the status quo. They’d rather perform the same rituals day-after-day than create new ones.

Intuitive-Feelers

Quite different from their sensing cousins, NFs love improvisation. They look within for wisdom, long for self-actualization, and revel in the experience of awe and mystery. They take meandering walks in nature, savor poetry, and strive for healing and wholeness. Seeking a knowing that is deeper than intellectual understanding, NFs honor dreams and stories of redemption and grace. Idealistic, NFs long to create a better world through spiritual harmony and the healing of the heart.

Unlike traditionalists, NFs borrow from many different traditions, developing a hodge-podge of practices and rituals, only to gravitate to new and better ones later. Whatever specific tools or techniques an NF chooses, they will include some type of internal reflection and some way to enhance healing and harmony in themselves and the world.

Finding a Spiritual Practice

None of these paths is the “right” way. Just as we need a multitude of personalities to keep our homes, businesses, temples, and societies going, so we need many ways to understand and reflect the holy. Do you find your own path by looking within, or would you rather listen to a trusted adviser? Maybe you can’t read enough of wise teachers such as the Desert Fathers, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Ekhart Tolle, Ram Daas, or Steven Hawking. Or do you want to skip all the flighty, lazy, mind games and just get to work?

Probably you can relate to a few of the different types, but one approach likely feels most comfortable for you. Knowing which reflects your preference helps you find a spiritual practice you enjoy.

Honoring the Path of Others

Knowing your preference can also help you understand others. We humans do a great job of rejecting those who seem different from us. I do it, anyway. I think of ST traditionalists as rigid, for example, and perhaps unkind. Yet my knowledge of the MBTI reminds me that STs do what needs to be done, they understand the importance of consistency, and they honor their elders.

That is not wrong. Indeed, all the types offer a richness and depth not just to our secular world, but also to our spiritual and religious traditions. I am grateful for the rich diversity of personality and practice we find in one another. May we learn to honor and respect those differences, and to work together for joy and hope and healing.

In faith and fondness,
Barbara

Credits

  1. Richardson, Peter Tufts, Four Spiritualities, Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing, 1996.
  2. The Myers and Briggs Foundation, (2014), “MBTI Basics,” retrieved June 24, 2017, http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/.

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash


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