Sizes of social groups

Social groups can be said to be of five sizes:

  • One person
  • Two people
  • A few people
  • Many people (all of whom know each other)
  • Many people (many of whom do not know each other)
  • New groups based on new definitions

Social groups can be defined in many ways. In this post we will loosely call something a group if it has some effect on the individual member. Comments will relate to Buddhism, human psychology, and how these relate to FIML practice.

One person

A “one person” group is one of the ideals of Buddhist practice. Milarepa is an example of a single person who lived alone for years until he became enlightened. The Buddha himself also spent years in solitary pursuit of enlightenment. Some monks and some recluses today live in one person groups. From a FIML point of view, a single-person group can work only insofar as the person doing it is able to reflect on FIML interactions they have done before or if they are unusually self-aware and honest. The problem with one person doing FIML alone is they do not have a second source of information; there is no one to check their work, and so they can easily delude themselves.

A single person working alone on anything will still have some sort of relationship with the semiotics of a larger group–be it Buddhism, some other religion, science, literature, music, etc.

Two people

Two people are the ideal number for FIML practice. Two people can still delude themselves, but this is far less likely than a single person practicing alone. Two people who care about each other and who care about what is true will have the flexibility and focus needed for successful FIML practice.

Two people will also be exposed differently to the semiotics of the larger culture(s) in which they live, providing a sort of parallax view of the society beyond them. This gives each of them a second pair of eyes and ears and a second opinion on what they encounter.

In the Buddha’s day monks generally traveled in pairs and gathered in large groups during the summer. Why did the Buddha have them travel in pairs? Is it not because this small unit is best for profound interpersonal communication and sharing?

A few people

Three or even four people could do FIML together, but in most cases it would probably be more difficult than just two people because it would take more time and be more difficult to balance all views.

Many people (all of whom know each other)

A group of many people who all know each other is becoming rare in the industrialized world, though it has probably been the most important group size in human evolution and history. Bands of hunter-gatherers all knew everyone in the group, as did (and do) peasants in small villages across the world. Small religious groups or communes in an industrialized society today might be able to do FIML very well if they divided into working pairs or small groups of a few people. These small divisions could easily share information with the whole group formally at meetings or informally as conditions allow. I would think that a commune or small Buddhist temple of 80 people or less might do very well with FIML practice.

Many people (many of whom do not know each other)

This is how most people in the industrialized world live today–within a huge group of people, most of whom are not known to us. Some examples of groups of this type are nations, religions, large religious groups, political groups, unions, professions, etc. People in groups like this can have varying degrees of attachment to the semiotics of their group. TV and news media create an illusion of group cohesion that can be, and often is, manipulated by the small groups that control these media. Economic, ethnic, and religious interests also determine the semiotics of many large groups. I don’t think that any large group would be likely to undertake FIML practice today. The day may come when FIML, or something like it, is taught in schools, but for now it is hard to imagine how any nation or large organization would decide to have their members all take up FIML practice.

Buddhism as a coherent tradition is a large group with many millions of members, most of whom do not know each other. This should tell us that all we can expect to get from “Buddhism” is its basic, or general, semiotics. The same will hold true for the large Buddhist traditions that are sub-groups of Buddhism. We can learn a good deal from Chinese, Tibetan, Theravada, or American Buddhism, but will always be limited at those levels to abstract semiotics. When and if we interact with smaller groups of Buddhists, the story changes to be roughly in line with what has been said above about smaller groups. It would be quite possible, and I think highly desirable, for a small Buddhist group to undertake FIML practice by breaking into smaller working groups of two or three people and discussing the findings of these groups as conditions permit. FIML is grounded in Buddhist ideas, and my guess is that partners would quickly begin to see many of those ideas in a new light. Emptiness, attachment, delusion, Buddhist ethics, and so on will take on new meaning when grasped with the dynamic tools of FIML.

New groups based on new definitions

The Internet has spawned a good many new groups that many people seem to be able to identify with in a way that was not possible in the past. Some of these groups with which members identify most strongly seem to be those that are based on medical diagnoses. There are many online groups centered around the diagnoses of autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, cancer, etc. To join a group like this you need the diagnosis or at least a strong suspicion that you have one of these conditions. Since these groups are pretty new, I don’t know enough about them to say how one of them might approach FIML practice. Personally, I tend to think these sorts of groups are a good thing. It is quite natural for people who perceive themselves as somehow different from the mainstream to want to band together and share their experiences. Notice how profoundly different group allegiance is in an online group formed around a medical diagnosis compared to a traditional ethnic, regional, or religious group. This comparison can tell us a great deal about the semiotics of all groups, how group identification happens, what it is based on, what loyalty to the group entails, etc.


From this short outline, I hope readers will see that as individuals we can understand and gain a good deal of control over how group semiotics influence our lives. If you are living in a huge anonymous group (a nation state, say), notice how much of your semiotics comes from TV and the news media. If you work in a large company, notice how much of your semiotics comes from the company. If you feel a strong allegiance to an ethnic group, notice how your group understands its own history and defines group traits. If you are a Buddhist, how do you see yourself as part of that group? How do you understand Buddhist semiotics? The ideal way to deeply understand all of your group attachments is to probe them with your FIML partner(s). FIML partners have the tools to grasp and discuss semiotics in ways that non-FIML couples do not.

Note: One reason I did this post is I want to show that some aspects of FIML practice are that way because that’s how people, language, and groups are. We form groups. One of the best group sizes for rapid and profound interpersonal interactions is two people. This condition can be used by larger groups to good effect if the large group is broken into smaller groups of two (or three) people. A very large group is not likely to undertake FIML practice. A single person living alone is unlikely to make rapid progress in FIML because they have no way to check what they are doing with someone else.

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