A whole lot of folks who think they are bad at spirituality have simply been stuffed into a one size fits all practice that doesn’t fit! We all know that different people have different personalities. There are a lot of tests (from Myers Briggs to the Enneagram) that will tell you about your personality type. But most of us have never even thought that we might have a spiritual personality type. Or that our spiritual personality might (does) impact the spiritual practices that will serve us best.
When you think about spiritual practices, what do you think of? Dark rooms filled with incense and silent people meditating for hours on end? A monk reading scripture? Rosary beads clicking? Spiritual practices have historically been linked to quiet, contemplative activities.
Which is great for folks with a contemplative personality, and hard as hell for others. I’m not saying that if something is hard you should give up on it, far from it. But when choosing a spiritual practice it makes no sense to shoe horn yourself into something that doesn’t fit. All spiritual practices will be hard at some point, they will all push us to become better more God-like people. That’s their job.
When we chose a spiritual practice that is utterly opposed to the way our brains work we set ourselves up for a lot of frustration.
Spiritual Personality Types: Diverse & Important
We know that people are all different, and that learning styles vary widely. And yet we still seem to treat souls (or spirits) as if they are all the same, and as if they are separate from the rest of our being. Which is silly, and unhelpful. Folks like me are often to blame. Clergy tend to fall into certain personality types just because of the work we do, and the processes in place to select and train us. We tend to be mystics, contemplatives, and uber geeks who can happily spend all day reading on some esoteric topic.
But as my favorite poet (Rumi) says, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. In other words: there are many ways to be spiritual and to engage the Divine. I have some good news. If sitting on a meditation cushion for even 20 minutes has never worked for you: you aren’t alone. And there’s nothing wrong with you either.
We and our spiritual types are diverse and varied, so today we will be exploring spirituality by personality type.
Personality Types & Spirituality: Know Thyself
First things first: we need to know what kind of people (spiritually) we are to know what is likely to be the best spiritual practices for us. To do that, we have to go inside. To the root of who we are, not the faces we present the world. When we talk about spiritual types this is what we mean: the one who is stuck with herself when sitting on that meditation cushion.
A decent place to start is a personality grouping like the Myers-Briggs or Enneagram. While neither of these sorts of tests can fully define who you are, they are helpful starting places to understanding some of your natural inclinations. Just know that they are not fate. Just because I am an INTJ now doesn’t mean I always shall be, or that I am doomed to the weaknesses of an INTJ. We can work on ourselves! (I am also a 9 on the Enneagram, but I also score highly as a 6 and a 5. And all of us have all of these types within us.)
Think back also on past spiritual experiences and what was helpful for you, or less so. I for one absolutely hate Lectio Divina, (also sometimes called African Bible Study) and other similar practices. They make me want to crawl the curtains with impatience. That tells me two things: when studying a text I might want to chose another method that doesn’t make me crazy, and I probably need to work on my impatience.
Figuring out what our strengths, weaknesses, and learning/spirituality types are is not an excuse: it’s a tool.
What is Spirituality Anyway?
Once we’ve gotten honest with ourselves about our tendencies and inclinations it’s much easier to zero in on a spiritual practices that are most likely to help us. But that might mean we have to broaden our idea of spirituality just a bit.
Let’s take meditation for example. Most people assume that meditation involves sitting very still for long periods of time, usually cross legged on the floor or a cushion. And that can be a very helpful posture, but it isn’t all that meditation can be. There is no requirement that you sit on a cushion or the floor, nor that you can cross your legs. You can meditate in a wheelchair. You can meditate in your hospital bed.
I know lots of folks who say they can’t meditate because they can’t sit still. And if that’s you, then don’t sit still. I do yoga when I can’t sit still. Other folks can only get into a meditative state while their bodies are running, rowing, or doing some other physical activity.
At its most basic meditation is about getting beyond our chattery surface level minds and into a deeper space where we can connect with ourselves and the divine. You can do that by sitting still, but that’s not the only way to practice mindfulness.
Spirituality by Personality Type
My personality type (INTJ in the Myers-Briggs for example) says things about me. It says I need time away by myself to rest and recharge after social interaction. That J says I like all the loose ends neatly tied up. It means I’m a thinker more likely to live in my head than my heart. Knowing these things can help me know what is likely to be most comfortable for me: reading a cool book on some bit of theology. And it also helps me see where I need to grow: empathy for that jerk who just cut me off in traffic, to not judge the friend who makes a (I think bad) decision from an emotional place rather than a logical one, and a willingness to let my husband have the spontaneous fun he so enjoys.
When choosing spiritual practices to make up my rule of life it’s probably a good idea that I balance my strengths and weaknesses. If I do nothing but try to stretch myself I’ll end up exhausted and wrung out; but if I do nothing but stay in my comfort zone I’ll eventually turn inward and atrophy.
And this is why personality type matters. Understanding why I respond as I do to certain things helps me avoid feeling like a failure by comparing myself to others. And it keeps me from staying stuck where I am.
A Spiritual Roadmap
Here’s what I suggest to get started creating a balanced spiritual practice that works with the core of your personality and skills. First get honest about who you are and what matters to you. I suggest some personality type work (either of the two mentioned above can be helpful). It might also be a good idea to make your values and priorities more visible and concrete. (Try my values assessment for that!)
Paved & dirt roads
Make note, mental or otherwise of the strengths and weaknesses of your personality type. (I’m super, super good at planning and organizing a complex problem into a solution but if my plans get derailed it’s anxiety city baby!) On my map I think of my strengths as the paved roads: places where my practice can be smooth sailing most of the time. My growing edges are the dirt roads, bumpy and way less comfortable but they take you to some amazing places.
I try to have a balance of the two, too many paved roads a boring and inward looking person makes, too many dirt roads is likely to leave you exhausted and grumpy.
For someone with a heady contemplative personality practices like sitting mediation, lectio divina, and contemplative prayer will be comfortable old friends. Easy to fall back on. More active practices like justice work in the community, and exploration with other people (ah, human interaction) will be harder but no less important.
I have broken up spiritual practices by personality type below. I’ve done this very generally, mostly hoping to give you some new ways of thinking of spiritual practice that touch on every aspect of your daily life. Remember: the spiritual is not something extra we add on, it is part of everything we do everyday. After all, we would never say: this is my physical practice, this is my mental practice as if our work, and daily life didn’t involve our minds and bodies.
These are general categories and in no way are they complete. They are merely a springboard for thinking about your own life and how you can best live and grow closer to the Divine. Some of the items below might not immediately feel like spiritual practices, but it is not the act itself that makes something spiritual, but rather the intention behind it. Yoga can be a straight up workout, or an hour long meditation session, it’s up to you.
Play to your strengths: Group scripture studies, theology discussion groups (pub theology is big in certain circles), community worship.
Stretch yourself: Spiritual journaling (just you and the divine), intentional silence (allow all others who are with you to speak before you offer your insight), invitation (invite your quieter friends to offer their wisdom, hold space for them).
Play to your strengths: Silent retreats, solitary prayer or meditation, at home Sabbath practice, journal.
Stretch yourself: Join a group scripture study or theology discussion group and purposefully speak more than you would normally feel comfortable. Teach a class, or lead a group discussion.
Spirituality for Those Who Are Often Still
Play to your strengths: Sitting meditation/contemplative prayer, spiritual listening to a friend or colleague, a symphony concert, watching clouds/stars or other natural phenomenon over an extended period (more than 30 minutes).
Spirituality For Those Who Fidget
Play to your strengths: Try meditation techniques (like following your breath or focusing on a word) while engaging in yoga, running, walking or some other activity that engages your body. Practice mindfulness while washing the dishes, or cooking dinner. Pray for others while coloring or knitting.
Stretch yourself: At the end of your active meditation practice take five minutes of stillness, stop at set times throughout your day for even 30 seconds of quiet.
Spirituality for “Thinkers”
Play to your strengths: Read a book from your religious or spiritual tradition, especially one that challenges you, journal, or purposefully seek out someone of a different tradition or theological viewpoint and have a respectful discussion.
Stretch yourself: Paint, color or otherwise express yourself creatively, practice yoga with an emphasis on following your breath and paying attention to the feel of your body. Get out of your intellectual practice, get outside, and get your hands in the dirt.
Spirituality for the athlete
Play to your strengths: Try any of the suggestions for those who fidget above, or get out and get your hands dirty in the garden. Turn your ordinary workout mindful, or offer a prayer for someone with each rep.
Stretch yourself: Finish that book you started, or start one. (Chose a religious tradition that you don’t know anything about for a real stretch!) Try to articulate exactly what you believe, and tell your spiritual story (journal, or tell a friend!)
Spirituality for the Free Spirits
Play to your strengths: Explore: get lost of back roads and actively look for beautiful, strange, or unusual things in which the Divine might reveal Herself. Say yes at the last minute to meet up with the friend who needs a shoulder to cry on. Stop into a worship service that’s outside your regular experience and experience it as a gift.
Stretch yourself: Commit yourself to a religious explorers class, or regular meditation class. Take on a 30 day yoga challenge (or any other 30 day meditation or prayer challenge you like.) Set aside specific times during the day for prayer or meditation for a whole week.
Spirituality for The Organized
Play to your strengths: Commit yourself to a religious explorers class, or regular meditation class. Take on a 30 day yoga challenge (or any other 30 day meditation or prayer challenge you like.) Set aside specific times during the day for prayer or meditation for a whole week.
Stretch yourself: Reach out to someone you haven’t seen in over a month: do it right now. Cancel your plans for the evening, grab a book, TED talk, or podcast and immerse yourself in something new. (On Being highly recommended.)
Make it up as you go
You get the idea. If you’d like more ideas about how to integrate your mental, physical, and spiritual parts into one whole life check out It’s All Sacred. More information is available here.
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