Catching small mistakes leads to big payoffs

A good way to think about FIML practice is to think of yourself as looking for the smallest communication errors you can find. These tiny errors might be called morphemes of error. A morpheme is the smallest semantic unit (meaningful unit) of a language. Thinking in terms of very small mistakes can help partners because these tiny morphemes of error are where larger errors originate. If we are able to observe a tiny error the moment it happens and fully discuss it with our partner, we will prevent a larger error from coming into being. If we fail to catch the small error as it arises, it will be much harder to correct the larger error later on because by then we will never remember when and where it started.

In the early days of doing FIML, I used to call the practice of looking for small errors “catching mice”. I took great delight in finding the next little mouse/error because I knew that the benefit of catching it would be quite large compared to the little thing I had caught. (Note: I was and am involved mostly in catching mistakes in my own mind. It is my partner’s responsibility to catch the mistakes made in her mind. It is usually the person who initiates a FIML query who is the one concerned that a mistake may have arisen in their own mind. And this is why it is so important to ask as much as you are asked.)

Thinking of yourself as catching small errors and discussing them with your partner may add a level of interest to your FIML practice. This approach also allows us to be very detail-oriented without feeling petty. I guarantee that after you have caught a few of these little mice and fully discussed them with your partner, you will see the benefits for yourself. Small communication errors are the basic units of FIML practice. FIML partners can work with larger units (generalities, psychologies, philosophies, etc.), but it is best to spend most of your time just catching the small errors that inevitably arise in all communications.

An interesting example of this happened this morning. The mouse I caught was not involved directly in my communication with my partner, though I told her about it right afterward and we discussed it extensively. What happened is this:

I have been trying to follow a low-carbohydrate diet, but somehow gradually always start eating more of them till I am back to where I began. Well, I started being more strict a week or so ago. Today I went into the refrigerator to get something to eat and saw some boiled potatoes in one bowl and some vegetables in another. In my head a small tug-o-war ensued. I chose the vegetables, but as I turned away from the refrigerator and put them on the counter, I noticed that I felt slightly guilty. What was interesting is I was feeling guilty for doing the right thing. But some part of my mind was telling me, almost subconsciously, that I was actually being selfish because the potatoes should be eaten, they are cheaper, and maybe my partner would want the vegetables.

I could go on about this but to keep it short, let me just say that none of it was true. I had nothing to feel guilty about. Just to be sure, I asked my partner if she wanted the vegetables and she said no, she had already eaten. So that little piece of false-guilt was a mouse. It was a mistake, an error that was occurring in my own mind, probably to satisfy that part of me that still craves carbohydrates. In catching it, I had caught the smallest unit of eating-too-many-carbohydrates that I had ever seen. This first success will likely lead to my catching this same mistake (or something similar to it) again fairly soon. (These small mistakes almost always occur more than once or twice.) After a few more successes at catching my own mind while it is making a small mistake about my diet, I may succeed in fully defeating that part of myself that reaches for carbohydrates when I know I should not.

I bet stuff like that happens frequently with people who are addicted to anything or who keep making bad or immoral choices when, for the most part, they know they should not. We can feel guilty without having good reason to do so. Some other examples of this might be soldiers who do what others are doing even though they know it is wrong; police who do the same; employees who do the same; Buddhists, psychologists, scientists, mechanics, carpenters, etc.–we are all susceptible to making moral mistakes because we will feel guilty if we don’t.

Hence the Buddha saying:

One is one’s own protector,
one is one’s own refuge.
Therefore, one should control oneself,
even as a trader controls a noble steed.

Dhammapada 25.380

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