Long before Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams or William James opened his first psychology laboratory at Harvard, Buddhist thinkers sought to understand the inner workings of the mind and personality.
Buddhist personality types were first described in the Visuddhimagga (The Path to Purification) by the Indian scholar Buddhaghosa almost two thousand years ago.
What are the three types?
The three personality types stem from the belief in Buddhist philosophy that unhealthy thinking grows from three primary roots:
The first, the greed temperament, is compelled by desire and seeks comfort and pleasure. This type will wake up slowly, will enjoy their meals unhurriedly and savor rich and delicious foods, will drive through traffic with ease, will sleep well, and will seek harmony and avoid conflict in interactions with others, even if that means being dishonest. In the process of grasping for more and more can come problems like over-indulgence, pride, self-centeredness, jealousy, deceitfulness and addiction.
The second, the aversive temperament, is characterized by judgment and rejection. This type will wake up annoyed or anxious, worried about the obligations of the day, with rush through meals, will feel tense and rigid when driving, will be quick to note and point out problems, will sleep fitfully and will feel contentious in interpersonal relationships. If the aversive nature is left unchecked, problems like anger, hatred, aggression, disdainfulness and cruelty can arise.
The third, the deluded temperament, becomes easily lost in uncertainty and confusion. This type will miss their alarm and wake up late, will eat messily, will feel scattered at work and will feel unsure of how to interact in groups, often copying what others are doing. This way of being can give rise to doubt, negligence, ignorance, inaction and anxiety.
In Western psychology or psychiatry, the greed temperament is most like the “cluster A” type (narcissistic, borderline or histrionic), the aversive temperament is most like the neurotic or obsessive-compulsive type, and the deluded temperament is that person who’s always thought they have ADHD.
What type am I?
Keep track of your answers to the following quiz:
1. When you go to a friend’s house for the first time, what is the first thing you notice?
(A) The handsome Sub-Zero fridge you’d love to have in your own kitchen.
(B) The cluttered living room that would be much more welcoming if she got rid of a few chairs and rearranged the rest.
(C) You don’t notice much, and when you go home you can’t remember a single piece of furniture.
2. When you go to the beach, what is the first thing you say?
(A) “The water looks perfect.”
(B) “Look at all the seaweed. There’s no way I’m going in the water.”
(C) “I can’t believe I forgot my towel again.”
3. In the morning:
(A) You like getting up early because it’s a great time to get things done.
(B) You getup grumbling, with reluctance (another day already!?) and a sense of obligation.
(C) You have a Ph.D. in sleeping late, and when you do get up, you must contend with brain fog for several hours.
4. After watching a movie with your partner, you are mostly likely to comment:
(A) “I love seeing movies by that director. Let’s get another one when we return this.”
(B) “I can’t believe how badly they butchered the story from the book. From now on it’s only foreign films for me.”
(C)”Why were they shooting at that one guy?”
5. You consider shopping:
(A) A sport, and you’re in the major leagues.
(B) A necessary evil. You go in, get what you need, and get out again before someone pisses you off and you have to kill them.
(C) A nightmare. With twenty brands of cereal on the shelves, how are you supposed to pick one? And let’s not even talk about clothes shopping…
6. What do you have in your home?
(A) Imported chocolate, an extensive DVD collection, and some fine art.
(B) Extra blankets (the heat is so low sometimes guests complain), closet and office organizers, emergency flashlights.
(C) A hodgepodge of furniture and small piles of papers and projects that you’re going to get to one of these days.
7. In school, you were usually:
(A) Chatting with your friends.
(B) Correcting the teacher.
(C) Doodling or daydreaming.
8. When you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you’re:
(B) Obsessive compulsive.
9. When things aren’t going your way, your first thought is:
(A) “No worries, it will improve soon.”
(B) “It’s someone else’s fault, and I should help them see the error of their ways.”
(C) “Hmm, I wonder if I did something wrong?”
10. When you are collaborating on a project, you mainly:
(A) Have faith everything will work out.
(B) Get concerned about the details being overlooked by your team members.
(C) Act in a supportive role, letting others lead.
(quiz courtesy of Amita Schmidt)
If you answered mostly A’s you’re the greed type, mostly B’s you’re the aversive type, and mostly C’s you’re the deluded type. We can have characteristics of all three types, but one type often predominates.
How do I transform?
“Nothing is lost, everything is transformed.” – Antoine Lavoisier, founder of modern chemistry
When we first start to recognize our personality type, we usually don’t like what we see. None of these types sounds particularly flattering. To see ourselves clearly can feel discouraging and scary.
Trying to reject or erase your underlying nature, though, is a mistake. These types are not character flaws that you should blame yourself for – they are intrinsic aspects of human nature that everyone experiences. This is not a “you” problem, it’s a human problem.
The goal is to understand our nature so we can trasform these unhealthy patterns into healthy ones. Our temperament is not a weakness, but a place where we can cultivate strength. Instead of trying to be someone else, you can strive to become the best version of yourself.
I identify most with the aversive type. When I drive I grip the wheel, get easily annoyed at the idiocy of other drives, and always feel like I’m in a rush, even when I’m not (especially in LA…). At my worst I’m harsh, judgmental, and critical of others (and even more critical of myself). I can get easily frustrated at the problems of the world and feel like every injustice is a battle I need to fight.
But at my best I am discerning and insightful. I care about justice and fairness more than I do about my own self-interest. I want to understand what’s true and communicate clearly. I am not afraid of difficulty and act with integrity, even when it’s hard to do.
These positive qualities are the other side of the same coin. They flow directly from my aversive nature. Instead of getting upset at the way I am and trying to be someone else, my task is to cultivate these natural strengths.
The task for each temperament is different
Each temperament has its unique strengths as well as unique challenges it is faced with.
The greed type has a natural ability to appreciate beauty and abundance. This temperament will tend to see the good in others and promote harmony in generosity in relationships. The task for the greed type is to learn to have a wise relationship around desire. Instead of feeling compelled to act on every desire that passes through the mind, this type will need to learn how to tolerate discomfort and watch the rise and fall of unwise desires without acting on them.
The aversive type has a natural discriminating wisdom and an ability to see the truth of a situation. This type has a comfort with difficulty and can unite opposing views with clarity, strength and integrity. The task for this type is to learn to let go of imperfections and appreciate moments of joy and spontaneity in everyday life.
The deluded type has a natural ability to approach situations with a “beginner’s mind” – without assumption. This frame of mind gives rise to creativity, spontaneity, and equanimity. The task for this type is to learn how to reel in their minds and pay attention to find a place of balanced steadiness.
Understanding the different temperaments can help us get along better with others. We all have friends, family or coworkers who are boastful and prideful, who are overly critical, who are disorganized. Instead of getting upset that these people are the way they are, we can appreciate that they are struggling with their own nature in the same way we are struggling with ours.