MFA Buddhist Art

Daniel Johnson Jr. recently asked:

For every one of my strengths, there is a balcony and a basement level. The balcony level of a strength is when the strength is showing up at its peak effectiveness. The basement level is when the strength can potentially become a weakness. For example, I’m one to whom strangers are simply friends I haven’t met yet. This means that I meet others and break the ice very easily. This is great when I’m in situations where I need to put myself out there. The basement level of this strength can be in coming across as surfacey: I know many people but not that well. What do you think, sir?

Indeed, this is almost exactly right. Any attribute that we have as human beings has three general grades. Think of it almost like Goldilocks and the three bears from the old fairytale. There is too much of an attribute, too little of an attribute, and a range of “just right”.

Take, for example, the ability to meet new people. Too little of this and you come across as shy or antisocial. Just right and you come across as friendly, eager, and inviting. Too much of this and you come across as shallow, that guy who is passing out business cards like candy at a networking event.

In my martial arts tradition, there are four archetypes that have these ranges, these spectra: Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind. From the Earth, we learn the attribute of confidence and firmness. In the right amount, confidence and Earth energy provide you with the ability to stand your ground when you’re faced with a situation. Too little of it and you are easily overwhelmed. Too much of it and you are stubborn and intransigent even when faced with the need for change.

The Water element is one of dispassionate, scientific thinking. Too little of it and everything is guesswork or corrupted pseudo-scientific thinking, the inability to think clearly about a topic. We see this often today, especially around fad diets and powdered foods and things like the anti-vaccination fraud. The right amount of Water energy allows you to be cool, calm, and collected under pressure. You can make decisions while giving yourself enough distance and time to think. Too much and you’re cold, calculating, and manipulative, totally heartless.

The Fire archetype is all about passion and connection, very much related to Daniel’s question. Too little Fire and you come across as shy, unable to take initiative, and disconnected from yourself and the people around you. The right amount of Fire energy makes you eager, outgoing, and happy to make connections. You are connected to your emotions and passionate about the causes you believe in. Too much and you are a Marilyn Monroe, an Elvis, or a Kurt Cobain whose passion just burns away balance. You self-destruct because you go beyond passion to desperation.

The Wind element is one of benevolence and seeking a higher cause than yourself. Too little, and everything you do in life comes with a “what’s in it for me?” silently (or not so silently) voiced with everything you do. The right amount of Wind energy inspires you to take up causes without necessarily seeking benefits for yourself, recognizing the greater good in life and the role you can play to make the world a better place for all. Too much Wind energy, and you are easily distracted and taken away from your core purpose by every new cause that crosses your desk. You never have enough time or money to be productive so that you can make a difference.

From these archetypes, we learn that any individual strength can be insufficient, present in a balanced amount, or overabundant. Equally important, we learn from these archetypes that each has a counterbalance.

Earth energy is counterbalanced by Wind energy; standing firm and yielding to others are each important at certain times. Water energy is counterbalanced by Fire energy; cool, scientific thinking and passionate, bright outreach each have their place. A deficiency in one allows another to become overabundant. Think about your own personal strengths! What are the counterbalancing attributes to your personal strengths, the things that help balance you out?

Being outgoing is counterbalanced by being introverted, and there is a time and place for each. Being greedy for money even has its place as long as it’s balanced by altruism, just as altruism must have at least some level of counterbalancing greed so that you can be productive, generate resources, and ultimately be able to help the causes you so fervently believe in. Being chaste and being lustful counterbalance each other and there is a time and place for each as well. Think about something regarded as negative like procrastination. Putting off eating junk food would certainly be a twist on a seemingly negative attribute!

The ultimate lesson that the archetypes and our personal strengths teach us is that no attribute in and of itself is good or bad. No attribute is absolutely positive or negative. Everything is relative. Everything has a time and a place that is appropriate, an amount that is in balance and out of balance in either direction, and is devoid of its own values. When you think about yourself and what you need to work on for your personal growth, resist the temptation to label parts of you as good or bad and instead ask, “Am I using this attribute in the appropriate place and time to benefit myself and the world around me most?” In that way, you’ll develop a healthier self-image and see how even perceived negative attributes can be made to serve you.

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