Fractals in the humanities

“A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale.” (Wikipedia)

Most of us know what math fractals look like and understand that shorelines and trees exhibit fractal patterns that display at different scales.

I think we can also see fractal patterns or sets in the humanities.

For example, the five skandha explanation in Buddhism to be fully understood must be conceived of as a fractal pattern that repeats at different scales. The normal explanation of the five skandhas is as follows:

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness. (Ibid.)

This explanation describes the most basic fractal pattern or the smallest one. “…the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly.”

A simple example of this rapid movement of the five skandhas might be the experience of having something suddenly touch your neck. Your first awareness of this is the form. Your next awareness is the sensation; at this point you react with aversion, attraction, or neutrality. If you are outside, you might react with aversion as you perceive (third skandha) the touch to probably be an insect. Following that, there is often rapid physical activity (fourth skandha) as you involuntarily reach to brush it away. After that has been done, you will determine what actually happened, you will become conscious (fifth skandha) of what happened.

If it was an insect you might shudder or feel relieved. If it was a leaf on a tree branch you might feel a bit foolish. Your consciousness of the event comes after the first four skandhas have arisen or occurred.

A larger fractal version of the above might be the feeling (form, or first skandha) that you are ignorant about something. This form gives rise to an aversive sensation (second skandha), which leads you to perceive (third skandha) that you ignorance is probably something you should correct. This leads to mental activity (fourth skandha) which may require months of your time. At last, when you are satisfied that you are no longer ignorant on that subject, you will experience a new state of consciousness (fifth skandha).

In the above example, your ongoing feeling of ignorance as you study the subject might also be described as the fifth skandha, consciousness. Understanding that the five skandha explanation is a fractal pattern to be used to help you understand yourself will allow you to apply it where it can do the most good. As with so many things in the humanities, you will do better if you see the pattern and use it to aid understanding without letting yourself get trapped in a quasi-logical net that hinders understanding.

FIML practice can be seen as a fractal pattern as well. The smallest, or most basic level, is the basic FIML query which interrupts normal communicative processing to insert rational thought and more accurate information. The FIML query interrupts the mind as soon as the second skandha, sensation, arises. Whenever partners question a sensation, they will immediately change all of the five skandhas associated with it. Rather than follow a semi-conscious sensation down the same associative path as usual, partners gain an entry point to their deep psychology and an awareness of how their communications are affected by it.

A larger fractal pattern of FIML, might be hearing about it (form); feeling interested in it (sensation); perceiving what it is; learning the system (activity); and lastly gaining a new consciousness about how language can be made to work much better than without FIML.

FIML is a tool that helps partners leverage communicative details to gain great insight into how their minds work. Since FIML is not (yet) the rule for how people speak to each other, a non-FIML fractal pattern can be seen in society at large: since most people do not have a way to access the highly important details that FIML can access, they do not expect anyone else to access them. Thus, by default they accept horribly sloppy reasoning and lies from politicians and others who make important statements in public.

The fractal pattern of non-FIML communication in society at large is all but defined by lies, secrets, and hidden motives. At a smaller fractal level, so are the personal lives of most people. The world goes on. It is my guess that brain scans and better computers and computer programs will one day make it easier for people to see that having the ability to perceive and manipulate communicative details greatly enhances communication. And that communication so enhanced greatly enhances our understanding of ourselves and others. And that this sort of understanding will help us see that we do not have to live in a society that is all but characterized by lies, sloppy reasoning, and partisan nonsense.

In the humanities, fractal patterns can be seen at many levels. By changing the details of very significant communicative patterns between ourselves and our partners, we will change both ourselves and our perceptions of others, and this will gradually lead to better concepts of what society is and how it can function.

The five skandhas and modern science

A recent study on emotional response—Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces—indicates that the Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness has it right.

From the study’s abstract:

The findings demonstrate that the amygdala can be influenced by even high-level facial information before that information is consciously perceived, suggesting that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.

Note that all important phrase “…before that information is consciously perceived.”

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness.

Advanced training in meditation and mindfulness is probably necessary for most people to be able to observe the five skandhas individually, as they are actually “firing,” but it can be done. A good deal of Buddhist practice is based on being able to do that.

Though all brain imaging studies must be taken as provisional since the technology is not completely reliable, they still are providing us with some very interesting information worth considering.

The amygdala study cited above seems to confirm that people form significant emotional reactions to faces without being conscious of their reactions at all. In Buddhist terms, their reactions are (or take place at) the second skandha—sensation.

The skandha of sensation is defined as a reaction to a form that is either positive, negative, or neutral. That is, we either like, dislike, or don’t care about the form. In the amygdala study the form is the face that is flashed very briefly on a screen. The face appears so briefly, for just a few milliseconds, that it is not possible to actually “see” or be aware of having “seen” it.

I think it is fair to extrapolate from this study that we humans are forming sensations all the time without being aware of what we are doing. As the authors of the study say, the study “[suggests] that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.”

“…processing of social cues in the absence of awareness” is pretty good description of what the Buddha called delusion, especially if we realize that the delusions we “process” from forms arising outside of us are entwined with and not very different from delusions we process from forms arising within us.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation, thus, provides a way to observe and analyze our minds to prevent our becoming deluded by the tug of sensations that happen in the “absence of awareness.”

A few days ago, I reposted an essay that touches on this subject from a different angle and a different study: we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots.

Here is a pretty good article on the study cited above: Friend Or Foe? Even When Faces Are Not Clearly Visible, Your Brain Unconsciously Makes Judgments.

Repost: we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots

This report–Brain oscillations reveal that our senses do not experience the world continuously–supports the core activity of FIML practice, which entails noticing the first instant(s) of the arising of an emotional jangle (that is typically tied to a much more involved “mistaken interpretation” within the brain). By interfering with the first instant(s) of arising, FIML practice forestalls the habitual wave of neurotic interpretation that normally follows. Instead, new information–better data obtained from the FIML partner–is used to replace the cue that led to the initial jangle, thus redefining that cue.

Professor Gregor Thut of the University of Glasgow, where the study was conducted, says of its results: “For perception, this means that despite experiencing the world as a continuum, we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots determined by the cycles of brain rhythms.”

I would further hypothesize that the same holds true for our “perceptions” of inner emotional states. In this context, recall the five skandhas of Buddhism–form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation (a FIML jangle is a type of sensation), which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness.

In Buddhist teachings, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of “discrete snapshots”, to use Thut’s words. In FIML practice, partners want to interfere with what has become a habitual “firing” of their five skandhas based on (neurotic) learned cues. FIML practice strives to prevent full-blown neurotic consciousness (the fifth skandha) from taking control of the mind by replacing the source of that consciousness with a more realistic interpretation of the neurotic cue. The cue corresponds to form in the five skandhas explanation. The more realistic interpretation of that cue is based on the true words of the partner.

The five skandhas can also help us understand how FIML is different from more or less normal psychological analysis. In normal, or traditional, analysis we use theories and schema to understand ourselves. In FIML we use a specific technique to interfere with habitual neurotic “firings” of the five skandhas. FIML partners are encouraged to theorize and speak about themselves in any way they like, and it is very helpful to do this, but the core FIML activity cannot be replaced by just theorizing or telling stories.

Here is a link to the study itself: Sounds Reset Rhythms of Visual Cortex and Corresponding Human Visual Perception.

Kevin MacDonald

I am a huge supporter of free speech, both in public and in private. I mention this because I am dismayed at how little can be said in private even among close friends, while even less can be said in public.

I am also terrified at the idea that the USA may eventually enact hate speech laws. As a linguist, I know from study and practice that limiting speech to pre-approved topics and emotions is the bane of social and intellectual progress.

As a Buddhist, my main complaint against the Dharma as we have received it is its emphasis on “right speech” with no mention of right listening. Over-emphasizing speech while ignoring the importance of good listening gives all power to the listener to interpret what they hear without analyzing it.

Having grown up in a community that was about 40% Jewish and having spent many years in China and East Asia, I am very used to how these groups speak about themselves and others. Editorials that would be deemed “racist” in the USA or Europe are common in East Asia where discussions of race and racial/ethnic interests are normal.

Kevin MacDonald is a scholar of Jewish history and Jewish “group strategies” as interpreted from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. It is refreshing to read MacDonald’s work because it is clearly referenced and argued and because he is not Jewish.

Not being Jewish gives him an objective point of view that frees him from some bias. One bias that affects the way many Americans perceive Jews today is the great prominence of the Holocaust in our understanding of Jewish history coupled with almost complete ignorance of the prominent role played by Jews in the Great Famine (Holodomor 1932-33) in Ukraine. Here is a piece by MacDonald on that subject: Stalin’s Willing Executioners: Jews a a hostile elite in the USSR.

Here is an essay posted by MacDonald just today: Žižek, Group Selection, and the Western Culture of Guilt. In this piece, he defends and explains himself better that I can. I highly recommend both of his linked essays.

When he is not being completely ignored, MacDonald is often called a racist or even a neo-Nazi, words strong enough to scare most listeners away. What is conspicuously absent is reasoned refutation of his well-argued ideas. Either he is right or wrong or partly right and partly wrong. But no one who has read his Culture of Critique could in good conscience dismiss it out of hand or conclude that MacDonald is racist or anti-Semitic.

I admire MacDonald for his scholarship, much of which I accept as adding to our understanding of the past and present. And I also admire him for his courage to speak publicly and to make his views known to a wider audience through The Occidental Observer, which promotes “white identity, interests, and culture.”

If those last few words make you shiver, go live in China where the promotion of Chinese identity, interests, and culture is the rule, not the exception. Or read any of scores of Jewish publications that do the same. Or Japanese, or Korean, or Mongolian, or pretty much anywhere in the world.

But white. Why white? Why not Irish, or French, or Polish, or Italian? Why white? The reason is the genes and culture(s) of European-derived peoples are mixed together. So if you want to preserve or promote the interests or culture(s) of those people you probably should use a simple word like white.

I have spent much of my life supporting civil rights, first for blacks, then for women, then for everyone. Then I became involved in promoting the interests of Chinese immigrants, followed by the interests of Tibetans in Tibet (now a largely lost cause, I fear). But only recently did it ever even occur to me to support the interests of white culture.

I got this way due to time and growth but also due to my painfully slow realization that the non-white groups I was supporting virtually never supported my group, the white people group. Yes, they sometimes supported me, but only if I were supporting them, often against real or imagined white oppression.

I don’t for a second deny that white people have done horrible things, but so have all the other groups, including Jews. When we don’t have free speech and we allow the listener to decide what can be said or not, we tend always to emphasize one side of things while leaving out other facts and interpretations.

Speech is always suppressed by those with the power to do it. There is much truth in the saying that you can tell who rules over you by what you are not allowed to say. This is as true in a Chinese Buddhist monastery, as it is in a Japanese classroom, as it is in American media.

I do not believe this is good for anyone. We should be open and free in what we say, how we reason, and how we think. Open discussion promotes a safer and better world for everyone. Kevin MacDonald is either right or wrong or partly right and partly wrong. He should be read and discussed widely and not simply ignored or dismissed with ad hominem attacks.

Empathy’s evil twin and our need to understand it

Empathy literally means the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by another sentient being.

It is almost always bound up with sympathy and compassion. Empathy as we normally think of it is a good thing, a liberal thing, a Buddhist thing, a kindly thing. But is that a good thing?

William Blake wrote the wonderful book of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience. When I first read Blake in my late teens, I adored the poems and illustrations of the Songs of Innocence and largely disliked or ignored the Songs of Experience. I liked the joy, innocence, and passion of the Songs of Innocence but not the sober truths of the Songs of Experience.

Culturally, as far as I can tell, America is infatuated with the innocence of empathy, but not the sober truths that should go hand in hand with it.

If all people were nice and kind and never did bad things, it would be good to be innocent about empathy. But not all people are good. Indeed, most of us are only good sometimes and some of us are really bad a lot of the time.

Do you have the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by a person intent on doing harm? Doesn’t our current sense of what empathy entails leave out empathy’s evil twin, the bad emotions and intentions of other sentient beings?

I don’t know if it is still true today, but Japanese tourists visiting the USA used to get mugged and raped at levels well above their percentage of the population. The reason was, and maybe still is, they were too innocent and could not perceive the evil intent of their new “friend” or the cool dude asking them for the time.

This happened because Japan has less violent crime than the USA and because Japanese tourists were not able to imagine or read American situational exchanges. And this shows that empathy for evil is based both on expectation and culture, which are close in nature.

The Buddha said that we can only really know another human being after long association. Even he cautioned about being innocent and empathizing only with the good we see in others while failing to recognize the bad.

Psychedelics and life/Buddhism

As mass fear of psychedelics subsides and more researchers dare to study them (used to be a career-ending move to even show an interest), more good things are discovered about them.

This recent article from the Washington Post describes, without even hinting that the researchers might be crazy, why psychedelic mushrooms might be good for you: Psychedelic mushrooms put your brain in a “waking dream,” study finds.

The article notes that the mushrooms can make people happier and more optimistic, while also curing depression and anxiety. It further claims that psilocybin produces brain “activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” a chorus of old hippies intones.

More on the study can be found here: New study discovers biological basis for magic mushroom ‘mind expansion’.

I have written several times about the fifth precept of Buddhism, which says: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.” (See Are We Misunderstanding The Fifth Precept? for more.)

I have gotten a fair amount of grief from some Buddhists for pointing out that the Buddha, who was an exceptionally careful speaker, mentions only booze in the fifth. Conspicuously absent from the five precepts, which are guidelines for lay followers, is any mention of psychedelics, which definitely were available in the Buddha’s day.

Many of those same Buddhists accept the use of dubious psychoactive drugs if they have been prescribed by a medical doctor. So, will they change their tunes when doctors start prescribing psychedelics?

My interest in this subject is not to encourage the use of psychedelics or any other drug. I just want us to be clear about what the Buddha actually said and meant. Should our understanding of the Dharma be based on one of the most reliable and widely agreed upon texts we have or regressive drug laws and timid science?

Morality in groups versus individuals

When people strongly identify with a group, they will also tend to strongly base their moral decisions on the norms of that group.

In this respect, group identity can dull moral sensibilities. At its worst, this sort of moral deference to group norms can take the form of “my country right or wrong” or “whatever is best for us is the right thing to do.”

When people do not strongly identify with a group but rather view themselves as autonomous individuals, they will tend to be more responsible and thorough when making moral decisions, assuming they are concerned with morality at all.

By providing general, ready-made answers to moral questions, groups remove the need for their members to think for themselves. Indeed, most groups stifle conversations and thoughts that go beyond group norms.

Most Americans, for example, do not question the sources of their news or the biases of the people presenting it to them. Similarly, most conversations in so-called polite society do not stray far from established values and interpretations.

When change happens in groups it usually comes from the top down or is due to a concerted efforts of single-issue activists. Both sorts of change reveal the hierarchical nature of virtually all groups. Top-down change is by definition hierarchical, while activist change generally always succeeds because it threatens a hierarchy or forces it to accept a new moral idea.

Gay marriage is an example of this phenomenon as activism caused the hierarchy of standard US moral culture to change and much of that change was also brought about by changes at the top of the hierarchy.

Of course, all people need groups. We learn from them and they support us in matters we don’t know much about. But groups also hinder us after we have learned what they have to teach us. This is especially true of large groups with many members who do not know each other personally.

Standard American culture, even with its many subgroups, is such a group. So is Christianity, academia, rural culture, etc. When we cede moral decision-making to the group(s) we identify with, we weaken our moral sense, and in weakening that we also weaken our intellectual and emotional responsiveness to the world around us.

In traditional Chinese Buddhism, most monks were expected to spend their formative years studying at one monastery until they were ordained at around the age of twenty. Then they were expected to travel alone or in pairs to see the world, teach, learn, and visit other monasteries. Sometimes they stayed for long periods of time in a particular monastery and sometimes they traveled for years, sojourning in a variety of temples. The underlying idea was to not become attached to a single group’s view of the world, but rather to explore and learn to rely on one’s own senses and sensibilities for the moral and intellectual decisions that lead to mental clarity and enlightenment.

Some depressing thoughts about the evolution of human intelligence

Firstly, human evolution is typically not survival of the fittest, but rather survival of the average. Outliers are misunderstood, envied, feared, killed or harmed. This happens to the less intelligent as well as the more intelligent.

The reason this happens to the intelligent is humans are envious and violent and prone to misunderstanding people who are smarter than them. This leads to violence toward, obstruction of, or not helping those who seem more intelligent.

It’s hard to escape a black ghetto because you will be perceived as “acting white” and attacked for that. It’s not very different in white “rural ghettos” (or urban) where intelligence is perceived as a threat. In many societies, average people cannot or will not lend support to their more intelligent members because they know, or imagine, that such behaviors will eventually lead to them being “lorded over” by the person(s) they helped.

Just a few generations ago, Italian American communities were famous for discouraging higher education among their children because it threatened the social structure if sons, let alone daughters, attained better careers than their fathers.

I am sure there are many other subcultures within the USA and throughout the world that have similar attitudes. Siblings often envy and decline helping each other, to say the least.

In the more distant past, violent death at the hands of other humans was a very common way for people to leave this vale of tears. Today the killing is less, but I doubt the harming is all that much less. Nowadays people use rumors, lies, poison, and many sorts of hindrance to prevent intelligent people from rising above them.

In a gruesome but very realistic way, this all makes sense because, evolutionarily, why should an individual help a genotype that is different from their own? This is probably why so much extant human intelligence, such that it is, is devoted to deceiving other humans, outsmarting them, out-competing them, getting ahead of them. Humans do better in a capitalist system because capitalism allows them to compete by virtually any means they can get away with.

Some strongly hierarchical societies, like China, do tend to help intelligent people if they are well-connected or have already risen to the top of a hierarchy. On the way to the top, though, the internecine fighting can be as bitter as anywhere else in the world.

In times of war or perceived threat, many groups will help the smarter ones of their own, but compensate by harming other groups even more viciously that usual. You can see this behavior in some cults, cliques, and secret societies within the USA today. Sometimes they help their genotype and sometimes they help their ideological types by that sort of behavior. In a sense, groups like that are just acting like individuals on a larger stage; they are selfish and violent as a group, but not too bad to themselves.

Having spent so much time with FIML practice and its considerable social and psychological implications, I don’t feel sanguine about the statements above. Isaac Newton helped the whole human race because somehow he was both left alone and helped. Had he spent time in public houses just being himself, he probably would have been beaten, and thus returned through brain damage to the common lot. Had he not been helped, he probably would have done nothing, and certainly much less. My guess is England probably had hundreds of potential Newtons, but just that one survived to produce great science.

Archimedes was murdered by a Roman soldier. Socrates was poisoned. Newton survived. These are the few we know about. I am sure there are many thousands more who were destroyed before they ever did anything to cause us to know about them.

My guess is the Buddha meant something like the above when he described the Four Noble Truths. Notice, that his formula provides no way for societies (large groups) to escape suffering en masse, but only a way for individuals or small groups.

Large groups can become more comfortable but, it seems, always at the expensive of even larger groups that are exploited by them. Maybe computers and machines will fix this problem in the future, but there doesn’t seem to be much hope today. Multiculturalism will very likely make things even worse, except for the few groups that dominate the others. Not much different, except in scale, from a normal bad neighborhood today.

More on personality problems

I discussed some of my problems with the word personality and how it is used in an earlier post.

This morning, I found an wonderful post by Robert Priddy that put the matter well. He says:

Against the belief in a ‘hard core’ of self it is held that we do not have – or experience – any stable, single, united self. We have no permanent identity because our entire psycho-physical personal existence is a dynamic and changing flow of bodily growth and decay, mental perceptions and memories. According to this, the belief in an ‘unchanging’ self – one always having the same identity – is a conception that has been developed and embodied in culture and languages and taken over during the socialization process. The interactive physical and social environments influence both body and mind, while the perception of oneself is also variable. People behave in different ways according to situations, not always showing the same character traits or responses. One who is truthful to most people may be deceptive or untruthful in other circumstances, so there is no unvarying self involved.

The way in which the mind construes a fixed identity (or ego) was described phenomenologically and convincingly by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1940s essay ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’. Wittgenstein is also illumining on the subject, also pointing out that – because we have substantive words (nouns) for self, ego etc., we are bewitched into the false notion that these (an many other such) words also represent something substantial. The self is a construction of the mind, and when one looks at the concept and our experience most carefully, one finds that the idea of an eternal self is just as false as that of an earth-centered universe and all that mental baggage handed down without due critical examination from such as Aristotle, Plato and others before them. (Source)

I very much agree with Priddy’s analysis. And also, I want to say a bit more. Priddy’s words describe the general problem with terms like personality, ego, self, or identity.

What I think gets missed in general descriptions of the problem is a clear micro-analysis of how these problem concepts (and many others) actually function within human cognition.

I accept, or posit, that human cognition can be fairly well-described as a network of associated semiotics. Single semiotics are the basic units of this cognitive network. How they are associated in different individuals will differ, sometimes greatly.

When someone speaks of their “personality,” I believe they often are reifying a cluster of mutually referential semiotics. Priddy’s description says it well—they are “bewitched into the false notion that these…words…represent something substantial.”

Instead of saying words, I generally prefer semiotics because it is a more inclusive term, encompassing words and all other signs that communicate.

When someone reifies the semiotics of “personality” or “self,” they are in a very significant way making a “fetish” of those semiotics. They are turning them into a “thing” that seems to have a life of its own, that can be referenced in ways that are essentially false (or fetishized) and misleading.

I believe this process can be glimpsed in a hazy way from afar in general terms, but that it cannot be clearly seen unless we are able to observe its micro-functionality. That is, we can vaguely know that we are using terms like personality in misleading ways, but we will not fully grasp how this is happening until we have a method to observe those semiotics as they actually functions in real-time in a real “moment” (short period of time up to 10 seconds or so).

The only way I know of to do this is FIML practice because only FIML allows one mind to stop and query another mind in the “moment.” Only FIML forces us to see the network of cognitive semiotics as they actually function in real time.

FIML cannot be done alone exclusively because there is no way to check your work when you are alone. Semiotics communicate. You can and do use semiotics to communicate with yourself and you can gain insight into them while you are alone, but you will never be able to see large parts of your semiotic network as it actually functions in real-life without the help of a FIML partner.

Fetishized semiotics part two

In a previous post, we discussed how semiotics can become fetishized and why that matters. In today’s post, I want to continue that discussion.

A fetishized semiotic(s) provides symbolic focus to the person who entertains it. It provides coherence within their semiotic networks of thought and communication.

Fetishized semiotics also generate or provide motivation for those who entertain them.

Since semiotics are fundamental to all communication, fetishized semiotics often serve to bond people into easily understood groups.

A person with a fetish for prostitutes, for example, will generally find it easy to get what they want while also bonding with others who have similar desires.

The same can be said for people who want a lot of money or status. Ethnic groups and religions often fetishize the semiotics of their cultures and histories.

A scientist might fetishize the semiotics of being a scientist.

A human ego, in most senses of the word and certainly in the Buddhist sense, can be described as the “fetishized semiotic(s) of ‘self’.” Or more precisely, as the “fetishized agglomeration of the semiotics of ‘self’ of an entity that lives in this world primarily within semiotic networks.”

When small “selves” (small in the Buddhist sense) become fetishized egos, or big selves, the entity in question will often feel that life has a focus or energy it did not have before. This is especially true if the person is part of a group that communicates about that ego and supports it through ceremonies, shared beliefs, values, etc.

Big selves, or egos, supported by groups are usually semiotically quite simple. This is a place where we can see the value of thinking in terms of semiotics.

The big self is simple—it wants one or two things and will marshal all of its (often considerable) mental powers to attain it. Other behaviors surrounding the core of the big self may be complex, but the basic big self is usually pretty simple. It wants respect, or power, or some ideal that often is a pretense for getting respect and power.

The formula can be different, but basically that is how it is.

Early communists in Russia and China, for example, all professed high ideals, and some of them meant it, but in both countries the revolutions were seized by the most ruthless actors and the high ideals were replaced with mass murder.

I am convinced that many of those most ruthless communists—who definitely had fetishized what they were doing—actually believed that their high ideals might one day come to be. But that first it was necessary to liquidate millions of “bad elements” and terrorize the remaining population into complete submission.

This all too human mix of idealism deferred to the future blended with extreme cruelty in the present illustrates another aspect of the fetishized self, or fetishized semiotics—the big self diminishes others, even becomes blind to them.

The fetishized ego sees itself with its own peculiar clarity and also it completely fails to see others except as aspects of its own fetish. Thus Bolsheviks and Red Guards murdered and terrorized tens of millions of people, often with very little feeling and always with massive self-delusion.

Mitta Sutta: A Friend

“Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven? He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.”

translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Source

Repost: Why Smart People Are Stupid

This short article by Jonah Lehrer shows yet another reason that FIML works so well.

From the article: “The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.” (Emphasis added.)

Be sure to read the whole article as that is just a piece of the argument. I chose it because it is relevant to the introspective aspects of Buddhist, and other, practices.

For the record, I am very fond of introspection. But introspection, as we have said many times on this site, without a way to check our work has a strong tendency to lead us astray.

FIML practice helps us correct our very numerous mistakes in assessing the thoughts and stories of other people. At the same time, FIML practice disabuses our own minds of the many errors we hold about ourselves based on our mistaken stories about others.

We have claimed many times that FIML practitioners will be amazed at how often they are wrong about the thoughts and intentions of their partners. The linked article well supports this assertion.

The psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, as quoted in the article says: “My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues.”

I believe him. This is how our minds (don’t) work.

FIML will probably not correct your general tendencies toward bias and misplaced confidence, but it will vastly reduce the number of mistakes you make about your partner (and thus yourself). This may not seem like all that much, but it is actually a huge benefit because when you have clarity with your partner, you gain a kind of emotional and psychological security that is deeply satisfying.

Humans are social beings, interactive social beings. When you gain verifiable clarity with your FIML partner you upgrade this fundamental aspect of your being far beyond what is possible by any other means I know of. FIML practice greatly reduces our need to rely on mistaken interpretations of our own making as well as the mistaken interpretations of the cultures to which we belong.

For Buddhists, this helps us to avoid the mistakes inherent in pure introspection as well as the mistakes inherent in accepting the generalities of the Buddhist tradition as it has come down to us today.

Repost: Dynamic semiotics, interpersonal semiotics

We discussed semiotics last week in the post Semiotics and FIML. In a post few days ago we linked to the essay by Daniel Chandler Semiotics for Beginners.

What I want to do today is follow up on those posts and discuss how to use semiotics in a dynamic way. How to use it in dynamic interpersonal situations to increase our understanding of both semiotics and our interpersonal relationships. Doing this will also help us better understand ourselves because the self is constructed out of semiotic elements and it appears most strongly in dynamic interpersonal situations.

One of the problems or deficiencies I see in a good deal of literature on semiotics is concepts pertaining to it tend to be static, based on structures and the general relations between semiotic elements rather than how those elements actually function in the moment. I am pretty sure that most people who spend time thinking about semiotics well-understand that semiotics describes a realm that is very dynamic and very fluid. And yet still, much of what we read is general analysis, a stable abstract schema intended to map or describe something other than itself. Nothing particularly wrong with this because a semiotic map would be a wonderful thing to have, but this approach is limited in that it cannot readily capture the functioning of semiotic parts as they occur in a moment of real life.

In like manner, a good deal of Buddhist literature treats the Dharma as a static map of “reality.” Buddhists try to learn this map and apply it in different circumstances. Again, not a huge problem, but lacking in a method for tackling real moments, as they arise, with something more than general rules or static formulas. Most psychology has the same problem. The DSM maps static traits, while there are few, if any, ways of dealing with dynamic moments as they arise in real life.

The only way I can see to tackle real semiotics or really do Buddhism or psychology is to find a way to deal with semiotics as it is happening. That is to say, to grasp semiotic elements in the moments during which they actually are arising in real life.

(A normal, static way of approaching semiotics might be to apply a semiotic map to the transcript of a recorded conversation. In Buddhism, it might to use a Buddhist slogan or formula to negotiate an emotionally difficult moment. In psychology it might be to use a diagnostic survey to “understand” what “problem” a patient is having and then applying a formulaic method for treating that “problem.” All of these approaches surely have some utility but they are also a bit like trying to catch a fish with a broken hook.)

How then can you or anyone actually “grasp semiotic elements in the moments during which they actually are arising in real life”?

  • You can’t do it alone because when you are alone you have no way of checking the validity of those elements.
  • You have to do it with someone who cares about you, who will help you, and who wants to do the same thing.
  • You both have to have the same plan to quickly grasp those semiotic elements as they arise because if you wait too long, you will be relying too much on your faulty memories, which tend strongly to forget semiotic elements after a few moments or to turn them into static bits of a “reality” that never was.

Analyze your own mind. For how long can you reliably recall everything that was/is in your conscious mind? In a dynamic situation, it’s not going to be very long. Our working memory can’t handle that much data. You probably can hold a decent memory of what is in your mind for no more than a few seconds.

Since we are going to be working with a partner on dynamic semiotics, we won’t need to remember absolutely everything. We will just need to remember things like why we said something, why we used a certain tone of voice, why we made a gesture, why we chose a certain word, etc.

That makes it easier. We could make it even easier if we just sat around with our partner and discussed the semiotics of static things; for example, the semiotics of flags, or national groups, or bicycle fashions. Well, nothing is perfectly static, but you probably get the idea. It is interesting to do stuff like that, but after a point it’s pretty boring.

What is much more interesting and vital is to find a way to discuss semiotics that arise during dynamic interactions with your partner. This will really help you understand what semiotics are and how they function. It will also help you understand Buddhism and human psychology much better.

This is what FIML does. FIML is a method for partners to grasp and understand the dynamics of semiotics as they arise (or very quickly thereafter).

Doing FIML enhances Buddhist practice because it helps partners understand more precisely how something in real life is empty, how it arose, why it arose, how it might create delusion, why it is impermanent, why it is a klesha, and so on.

For people who want to optimize their psychology and their relationship with their partner, FIML greatly improves communication. It helps partners identify and understand transient destabilizing emotions while strengthening deep bonds between them. If partners believe they have psychological problems, FIML will help them understand how those problems actually arise and how they actually impact the moments of their lives. By frequently replacing transient, mistaken emotions and interpretations with better data, FIML partners will gradually relieve themselves of the suffering that comes from poor speech habits, mistaken interpretations, and a static view of the self and others.

FIML is fundamentally a technique for correcting inevitable interpersonal communication mistakes. FIML can be better understood if partners also have a basic understanding of semiotics.

Please see How to do FIML for more.