Contretemps and FIML

In FIML practice, we use the word contretemps to indicate a mix-up of meanings between partners. When partners are thinking, speaking, and/or listening from incommensurate perspectives, they are experiencing a contretemps. This causes mental confusion and can quickly lead to emotional reactions that are out of proportion to the situation. As we have seen in other posts, when you do not resolve a contretemps to the satisfaction of both partners (and to the satisfaction of what is true), you will cause a division, however, small in your shared understanding of each other. You cannot fully resolve a contretemps without doing a FIML dialog about it.

Some of the common ways that contretemps are generated:

  • you are dealing with a new subject
  • you are dealing with a different aspect of a familiar subject
  • one of you is saying something close to but not the same as what the other is hearing
  • one of you out of curiosity wants to revisit a subject but to the other it sounds argumentative
  • one of you is not getting sufficient confirmation from the other about what you said, so the point gets repeated

Notice that the origin of all of these contretemps is mental; that is, not terribly emotional. Once the mind becomes confused, however, even if only slightly, it begins to mishear and misspeak, thus compounding the problem while adding emotional elements to it. This happens because interpersonal communication is a complex system. By complex system, I mean it is a system that changes very rapidly and which is characterized by initial starting points not providing sufficient data to predict later outcomes.

Once you understand these points, it should become clear why interpersonal relationships can be so difficult without FIML practice. In non-FIML speech, even very simple contretemps can, and often do, lead to deep frustration and strong emotions. Whether those emotions are expressed or not, they exist. Partners may feel resentment, anger, blame, self-blame and so on due simply to a mix-up of very trivial meaning.

Let me give an example. This morning I noticed that we had very few clean dishes (of a certain type) in our cupboard. They were all in the dishwasher. In my memory, that was the smallest number of clean dishes of that type I had ever observed in our kitchen. I felt curious about it and asked my partner why she thought there were so few. She said it did not seem unusual to her. I asked again, she repeated her answer and we went on to other matters. Sometime later, I became curious about the dishes again and asked her again if she knew why we had so few clean ones. This is where the contretemps began. When she answered, either she had an unconscious tone of impatience or I mistakenly heard a tone of impatience (neither of us is sure). Whatever the case, I thought she was probably feeling that I was blaming her and so my voice rose slightly with the vague intention of putting out a fire before it got going. I wanted to emphasize that I was just curious. Of course, that tone did not work at all but only made matters worse. At this point we began a FIML discussion and within a few minutes established a mutual understanding that was satisfactory to both of us concerning what had just happened.

The basic type of contretemps that led to that discussion was the second-to-last one of the bullet points listed above: one of you out of curiosity wants to revisit a subject but to the other it sounds argumentative.

I hope it is clear to readers that even small stuff like that can cause problems. And I hope it is also clear that you really have to take the time to figure it out with a FIML discussion. If you don’t, both of you will draw wrong conclusions from the incident or at least be vague about it. If we had done as most people do and just dropped the subject when it got a little out of control, I might have concluded that my partner was mad at me for being petty or blaming her for something when, in truth, I was only curious about a small domestic anomaly. She might have thought I was angry about something else and was using the dishes as a way to get in a dig. Even more to the point, neither of us would have had any way to be sure we understood each other or the incident in question. Most couples would probably go on about their day, ignoring the issue while waiting for positive feelings to arise again.

But that doesn’t work so well. It’s an OK way to go once in a while and for some situations, but if you do that a lot, you will develop deeper and much more serious contretemps in the way you relate to each other. In engineering, I believe, there is a saying that cracks never get better but only worse. In interpersonal relations, contretemps similarly don’t usually get better because they almost always lead to further mistaken interpretations. She is too sensitive. You are too argumentative. Etc. Fill in your own blanks. Once the contretemps develop and are not addressed through FIML practice, at least some of them will get worse.

To repeat: almost any particular contretemps is in itself trivial. But if we do not figure it out and resolve it, it stands a good chance of having deleterious effects on our relationship. Interpersonal communication is a complex system. It is dynamic and moves very quickly. We ourselves are often not aware of why we said something, let alone why our partner did. If we do not deal intelligently with those levels of communicative reality, we will run into problems, many of which will not later be soluble.

I can’t think of any other way to successfully deal with the complexity of interpersonal speech than FIML. Even if we have a video and a perfectly accurate transcript of what was said, when we play it back or read it, there will not be any way we can be sure of what was in someone’s mind as they spoke. The really deep and true—the most valid—level of interpersonal communication can only be accessed by quickly recalling the few seconds of speech that have just passed. Then, these few seconds must be discussed using FIML techniques. With practice, slightly longer time-frames can be accessed, and narrative and episodic memories can also be accessed and used, but that can be difficult and won’t work if the basic FIML technique is not part of your interpersonal foundation.

This is one area where I have a fairly serious disagreement with the way Buddhism is often practiced today—with it’s overly strong emphasis on being inoffensive when we speak. If I had done that when I became curious the second time about the dishes, I probably would not have said anything. But if I had not said anything, I would have not done so because I was falsely assuming my partner was overly sensitive and I would have been falsely assuming that my curiosity was somehow wrong or that I would not be able to make myself clear to her. That would have constituted a silent contretemps, a crack in our understanding of each other. On some later day, secure in my conclusion that my partner is overly sensitive, I might have widened the crack by withholding something else from her.

The preeminent virtue in Buddhism is always wisdom, not compassion, not being inoffensive, not necessarily being silent when you aren’t sure. I think FIML gives us a way to do wise Buddhist practice with our partners without resorting to external semiotics or judgements, or misapplied slogans.

By the way, the example of the dishes is a pretty good example of something that might prompt a FIML discussion. It was a trivial incident that, like so many others, might have seemed to be of no special importance. But it was also sort of a trap, one half of which was the incident and the other half of which was our, we humans, poor abilities at speaking, feeling, and thinking. If the incident is so trivial, it ought to be easy to figure out, right?

FIML and illusions, visual and verbal

It’s well known that memory, context, and expectation are fundamental to our perceptions of “reality.” For more info on this see: FIML and memory distortion.

In this post I want to give a few examples of how this happens and then discuss how these examples are relevant to FIML practice.

Yesterday I took a walk with my partner. It was a sunny day and at one point the reflection of a leafless tree in the windshield of a car parked about thirty yards ahead of us caught my eye. Most of the car was in shade, so the reflection stood out prominently though I could not quite figure out what I was seeing at first. As I stared at the windshield, I saw the crude image of a human face. It flickered in my mind and changed several times as we advanced toward the car. Was I seeing a person sitting in the passenger seat, I wondered. Or was it something else? What I saw in the reflection was more of a proto-face than a real human face. My brain made several attempts to interpret the reflection as we drew closer to the car. At last, I saw that what I was looking at was a bright reflection of tree branches high above the car. The scene fooled me because the car was in the shade and the tree branches were in the sun quite high above the street.

This incident illustrates how our minds try to make sense out of what we are seeing even before we have sufficient information to do so reliably. Why did I see a person and not a cat or something else? The answer is probably that a person would be the most significant to me of the likely interpretations of what was there. In a kind of self-centered all-too-human way, I interpreted the reflection as an image that would have the most bearing on my life. In the case of that reflection, I was able to ascertain what the image really was. I remember being quite curious about it. It was kind of a delightful optical illusion which was fun to ponder once I understood it.

Another incident that happened yesterday also occured while I was walking with my partner. This time it was dark. On the street ahead of us she saw what she told me looked like a pillar that had fallen in the road. That would have been a real anomaly, so she kept looking at the object. Eventually she realized that it was a car parked in shadows in such a way that its outline had not been clear. Why she saw it as a collapsed pillar, I don’t know, but as I had done earlier in the day, she was quite curious about what she was seeing as we approached the scene. When she figured it out, she described what had happened and we discussed how it relates to FIML.

What she noticed is that since the anomaly was visual, it was fairly easy to figure out. She also noticed that her curiosity would have made her walk toward the pillar/car to see what it was even if it had meant going out of our way. Most of us, I think, would do the same. Visual illusions like that are not threatening and usually are fun to figure out.

If an illusion arises in what we think we have heard someone say, however, most of us will normally not pursue the matter. What kinds of illusions arise when we speak with others? Any interpretation that is wrong is an illusion. Any interpretation on the personal-public spectrum of possible interpretations that is not what our interlocutor meant is an illusion. Any interpretation founded on our own private neuroses or on public misconceptions instead of what the other person really meant is an illusion.

An example might be someone seems too familiar when they greet you, so you interpret their behavior as being disrespectful, flirtatious, or nutty when the person is just feeling good because of something that had recently happened. In real life, you usually can’t figure those sorts of illusions out unless they occur with your FIML partner. In real life, that sort of thing occurs many times per day and is compounded by as many people as we deal with. Just being “positive” and “a friend to all” doesn’t solve the problem either because maybe that person actually was being disrespectful or flirtatious or nutty or all of them at once. You will be deluded, to some extent, no matter what you conclude because you have no way of knowing what really happened, what was really in their mind. That is the vague and irresolute reality in which we all live. We deal with that poor level of mutual understanding by emphasizing professional standards, good manners, shared beliefs, and so on. This works well enough in the public sphere but will lead to sorrow in your private life.

A third incident occurred later that evening. As we were getting ready for bed, my partner noticed a car outside stopped near our driveway with its motor running. It was getting late, so she wondered about it. Was someone coming over? Were they turning around? The car was pretty rundown and noisy so it looked maybe a little suspicious. My partner kept watching. After a few minutes, our neighbor’s daughter got out of the car and waved goodbye to the driver. All questions answered. This is another example of how we can usually have our curiosity about visual events satisfied while it is much more difficult to do the same with verbal events.

If you can understand this and notice stuff like this in your own life, you will probably be able to see what the value of FIML is and how and why it works so well.

Are We Misunderstanding The Fifth Precept?

Some years ago I wrote a piece entitled: “Are We Misunderstanding The Fifth Precept?” It was posted on our old site and I apparently did not save a copy when we took that site down.

The gist of the essay was that the Buddha clearly and precisely indicated alcoholic beverages in the fifth precept. He did not say anything about any of the other mind altering substances that were almost certainly available in his day. Those other substances included at least some of the following: soma, amanita muscaria, psilocybin, Syrian Rue, opium, and cannabis. There may have been others. I don’t think anyone is sure what was available back then, but we know that soma was highly praised in ancient Indian literature and that it probably was a psychedelic substance.

As far as I know, all of the Buddhist traditions accept the Pali version of the fifth precept as authentic. It says: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.” Or words to that effect.

A Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar and translator told me that his best rendition of the fifth precept in English is: “I take it upon myself to refrain from the heedlessness caused by fermented and distilled beverages.” Or “I take it upon myself to refrain from the irresponsible use of alcoholic beverages.” I may have words slightly off, but am quite certain that the essence is right.

Given the above, is it right to change the fifth precept to its more common modern form that often says something like the following: “I take it upon myself to refrain from all intoxicants.” Or “I take it upon myself to refrain from all intoxicants and all substances that may harm the body and mind.”

The purpose of this post is not to encourage the use of drugs or alcohol but rather to be clear about what the Buddha really meant.

Most of us know that the Buddha was a very careful and unambiguous speaker. Would he have said “fermented and distilled beverages” when he meant all intoxicants? Why then was he so careful to name both kinds of alcohol, but nothing else? Did he mean no alcohol or no irresponsible use of alcohol?

I am not going to answer these questions, but I will say that good practice entails thinking about everything and not just adopting rules someone has told us. By the way, if anyone has a copy of the essay I lost, please let me know. Thanks.

FIML and cerebral efficiency

This article argues that the human brain saves energy by predicting or imagining “reality” more than actually perceiving it: Do Thrifty Brains Make Better Minds? The article argues that this way of using our brains allows us to work more efficiently with complex data or in complex situations.

I think this general premise is pretty well known and agreed on, but the linked article puts it in a new way. The following sentence caught my eye: This… underlines the surprising extent to which the structure of our expectations (both conscious and non-conscious) may quite literally be determining much of what we see, hear and feel.

The article uses visual perception as an example, but the idea applies just as well, and maybe more so, to what we hear in the speech of others. FIML practice works by inserting a new mental skill between the first arising of a (stored) interpretation and its full-blown acceptance as “reality”.

FIML: A few FAQs

I have a partner who is willing to do FIML. How do we start?

Find a clear space in your relationship–a time or place or subject where there is no conflict. Start there.

What if we have some big issues? How can we address them with FIML?

In the beginning, don’t. FIML works especially well because it is designed to work with small things. Work with small stuff first and then gradually add small bits of your big issues when and if they arise. A big issue is only big because we believe it is or have learned to deal with it in that way. If you nibble at the edges of it with your partner you may find that your big issue was not so big after all.

What if my issues really are big?

All anyone can do—no matter what their background—is make the best of it. When analyzing ourselves we need to be careful about two things: 1) overly generalizing and 2) expecting complete change. Instead, we want to focus on: 1)  the particulars of who we really are and what our conditions really are and 2) upgrading those things as needed. For FIML practice avoid general diagnoses about what you think your condition is. Seek to upgrade your traits rather than completely change them. Begin with good, clear communication with your partner based on honest FIML practice.

In many places you have said that a neurosis is a “mistaken impression” or that I will find that my understanding of what my partner has just said will almost certainly be a mistake or at least not the whole truth. But what if I did understand what they meant and they confirm it? What if I sense that they are mad at me, do a FIML query and am told by my partner that they are mad at me for something I said or did?

If something like that happens it is because your partner missed an important opportunity to do FIML. When they first noticed their own reaction to whatever it is you said or did, they should have initiated a FIML query. Both partners must understand that asking and answering honestly are equally important skills. If your partner finds it hard to initiate a FIML query, think of ways you can make this easier for them. You might have them practice by just randomly asking you what is in your mind or what you associate with a random word or phrase. Do the same for them. With a little practice you will find it not so hard to do this. It is important that each partner learn to ask as well as answers FIML queries.

We are always very honest with each other and deeply in love. Isn’t that the same as or better than doing FIML?

Maybe. But keep in mind what FIML does. FIML uses objective data agreed upon by both partners to catch and eliminate mistaken interpretations (kleshas, neuroses) the moment(s) they arise. FIML is a practical method that helps partners ensure and maintain excellence in their relationship in a way that emotions or vows alone cannot do. FIML accomplishes most of what it does by being a technique that is called up quickly, the moment it is needed.

We already have a good relationship and my partner thinks it would be risky to do FIML.

I honestly do not believe that FIML practice will harm anyone’s relationship but only improve it. Try a few small FIML exercises with your partner—even if you are both skeptical—and see what they do for you. You will probably discover that there are large areas of your minds that are looking at each other and the world differently. It is not a problem to see this, but a benefit. If you really do have a good relationship, you will only find each other more interesting when you do FIML practice. I do not want to sound too idealistic or simplistic here, but want to be brief for this format. For more information on this or any other FAQ, please look through some of our other posts.

Where do we start?

At the top of the page are some links—What is FIML? How to do FIML? Please read those links and/or other posts on this site. Eventually we hope to give classes on FIML practice but cannot do so quite yet due to other commitments.