FIML over time

Long-term practice of FIML generates deep change in the human psyche. Social relations, habitual traits and attitudes, as well as ingrained emotional responses may all be subject to profound transformation.

The reason this happens is the basic FIML technique provides consistently good counter-evidence to habitual mental and emotional reactions. In addition, the technique itself teaches the practitioner’s mind–or shows it by example–to apply similar kinds of reasoning to many other situations that are not open to FIML dialog.

The basic FIML technique is a deceptively simple stop-and-query technique designed for use in conversations between close friends or partners. In our How to do FIML post, we have described the basic technique as clearly and simply as we could. This description should work as an effective model for beginning FIML practitioners, but it is a bit like describing in words how to hit a baseball or dive into a pond. The experience of actually doing FIML in a real-life, dynamic, emotionally-charged conversation will draw on a wide variety of skills and emotions from both partners. These aspects of FIML cannot be well-described in words because they will be different for different people and in different situations.

FIML does not tell anyone what to think or feel, but rather provides a method for clarifying thought and feeling as they occur in real life.

FIML practice allows partners to expand their senses of who they are and access these areas through speech. Correctly done, FIML will keep partners from becoming lost in side-issues or emotional traps. FIML gives partners access to a shared meta-perspective that will help them gradually rediscover or redesign how they think of themselves and each other, and how they react in many different kinds of situations.

FIML is like yoga in that it uses no props. Yoga uses the body to exercise the body. FIML uses two minds working together on the basis of shared rules. With practice, FIML partners will find that they are able to leverage or gain access to many areas of themselves that cannot be reached by other means. After several years of practice, partners will discover that they have gained levels of mental and emotional strength and freedom that had been barely imaginable before.

The basic FIML technique depends on partners clearly remembering everything that is/was in their mind(s) at the moment a phrase in question was spoken and/or heard. By honestly comparing the contents of their minds under these circumstances, partners will gain access to the rich realm of secondary and tertiary meanings that accompany all utterances. At the same time, they will free themselves from habitual mistaken interpretations whenever they arise.

Their minds, thus, will gradually gain freedom from error (mental and psychological) while broadening the range of subject matter they are capable of entertaining. And this will have a far-reaching influence on both behavior and perception in many other areas.

Once partners are skilled in the basic FIML technique, they will find that it need not always be done immediately upon noticing an emotional or judgmental reaction. After a few months of successful FIML practice, partners will probably find that they can bring up events from hours before and both will still have a reasonably accurate memory of what was said and heard.

It is important not to jump to this level too quickly, though, because if the basic technique has not been mastered, partners will lose sight of the meta-perspective, without which deep understanding and transformation will not be possible. Experienced partners will know when they have good data and can proceed with a FIML dialog and when they don’t. If you don’t have good data (both partners remember exactly what was said and what they were thinking), don’t do a FIML dialog. Just drop the subject. Though retain the general sense of something having happened because the subject will almost certainly come up again. When that happens, try to get good data you both agree on and then proceed with a FIML dialog.

Why not doing FIML is immoral

Since most people have never even heard of FIML and do not have the opportunity to do it, I can’t truthfully say they are immoral for not doing it. But I can say they are amoral (not knowing) in a way that leads to bad results—results that harm or diminish people.

It is immoral (or amoral) to not do FIML because when you don’t do it you are forced to interpret what others mean or intend and that means to judge them without asking them if your interpretation is right.

Most of us get around this fundamental problem by using semiotic codes taken from the media, a subculture, or other kinds of training to formulate our judgments for us. Semiotic codes are a kind of short-hand for the attitudes, emotions, and beliefs that always underlie conversations. They help us understand each other by standardizing what we say and how we say it. This works well-enough in many situations (professional, formal, etc.) but is ultimately a disaster in interpersonal relationships because it forces us to make many mistakes. It forces us to form many unfounded judgments about each other, while at the same time limiting what we can say and hear.

Some examples of semiotic codes taken from the media might include behaviors learned from TV shows, values taken from editorials or talk shows, attitudes learned from late-night comedians, and so on. Semiotic codes learned in a subculture might be religious, professional, criminal, ethnic, or the hidden codes of a secret society. Other kinds of codes might be ones learned during sports training, pursuing a hobby or interest, or gleaned from books.

You can’t hardly talk without some operative semiotic code. And you won’t be understood if your interlocutor is not at least passingly familiar with your code. And, of course, most of us switch codes frequently depending on circumstances. Semiotic codes underlie communication and are essential for its success, but if they are held unconsciously and cannot be considered or analyzed, they will often prevent really deeply successful conversation. This is why they can be a disaster in close interpersonal relationships.

Semiotic codes generally facilitate the standard views of the groups that produce them. When they are impervious to analysis or reconsideration, all communication beyond that point is blocked.

Is it a good idea or a bad one to base your semiotic code on your imitation of professional actors? Artists? Monks?

Notice how every type of public personality projects a semiotic code, rich with behaviors and values. If I act like a monk, will you think better of me? Which monk? How will you know if I am acting or not?

It’s hard to tell in today’s world because people are so good at projecting codes. Is he really that compassionate or is it an act? Is she really as sure of herself as she seems?

Professional actors are especially good at projecting or embodying semiotic codes. In many ways it makes sense that actors should determine a good deal of how non-actors behave toward each other. But in many ways this is also not such a good thing because you shouldn’t need to be imitating someone or projecting something when you are with your close friends and partners. Furthermore, professional actors spend their lives practicing and are chosen for their parts because they are likeable or are interesting to look at.

For most of us, it’s phony or, at best, only half-honest to base our communications with others on imitations of professional actors, monks, musicians, athletes, and so on. And it is not all that much better to imitate the ordinary people we play softball with on the weekend.

Some of that is OK, but if the role-playing or the semiotic code is taken as “real”, as your real “persona”, a raft of other bullshit is going to come into play. At a fundamental level you will be lying to your partner and yourself because your fundamental being is no longer accessible to either one of you. Instead of being authentic with your partner, you will always be referring back to a semiotic code which is necessarily limiting and never completely true.

If you see what you are doing–pretending to be confident when you are not, say–you might feel phony but justifiably rationalize your actions by recognizing that you really do not know what else to do.

This is where FIML comes in. If you do FIML, you won’t be trapped by the limitations of semiotic code. With FIML, partners have the means to observe and analyze their codes as they are being used. Rather than judge your partner or friend based on your (probably wrong) understanding of their inner code(s), FIML will show you how to ask about their code and how they may be using it. FIML will also show you how to understand their answer.

FIML practice, thus, allows partners to avoid the need we have in most ordinary conversations to make immoral/amoral judgements about what others are saying. I do not believe there is any other way to do this except through FIML practice or something very much like it.

Ambiguity and social hierarchy

In this post I am going to contend that: linguistic ambiguity tends to lead to or produce hierarchical social systems.

By linguistics, in this context, I just mean language and its uses, though expressions, gestures, roles, and so on can also be factors. Of course, many other things–genes, wars, historical precedents, etc.–also produce hierarchical societies, but today we will just deal with language.

Another way of stating the contention above is: humans have adapted to linguistic ambiguity by forming hierarchies. Or human hierarchical societies have evolved as adaptations to linguistic ambiguity. A stronger way of saying that would be human hierarchical societies have evolved as adaptations to linguistic ambiguity and they exploit ambiguity to maintain themselves.

Another way of saying all that might be to say that in hierarchical societies linguistic ambiguity is good for the top people because it maintains the status quo. This happens because if the ambiguity matters in any way, it is almost always the top people who will decide what it means.

I am going to present a microcosmic example of this point. Please notice as you read this example that this kind of ambiguity is very common. Something like this will occur in your life very often, maybe as often as a few times per hour of conversation, maybe more.

This morning I was cutting some (store-bought) potatoes for breakfast. As I was doing that I said to my partner: “The potatoes from our garden are so much better than these store-bought ones.” All I meant was that. I had no further implication in mind.

My partner (my FIML partner) did a FIML query and asked me: “Did you say that to make me feel good about our garden?” I replied: “No, I did not.” After which she said: “Because if you had I would have felt bad because I was very careful when I bought those potatoes so I would have felt that you were criticizing my shopping.”

This example shows very clearly that the only way to resolve the ambiguity inherent in my statement is to fully discuss the statement–why I said it, what I meant by it, and what I didn’t mean by it. Anything less would leave a puzzle in my partner’s mind.

This example also shows the value of trivial incidents for FIML practice, something we have emphasized many times. That this incident is trivial and small (just a single sentence) makes it perfect material for a FIML query. If the incident were larger, it would be harder to isolate and agree upon data points. As it was, my partner and I were able to clearly remember what I had said and how we both understood that statement very differently. As it was, we were able to clear up the ambiguity very quickly. No, I was not implying criticism. Yes, I do appreciate your careful shopping. Yes, these are excellent store-bought potatoes, but they aren’t as good as the ones we grow in our garden.

Everything was clear and we both experienced a resolution, my partner more than I because I had not initially noticed the ambiguity in my statement or the effect it had on my partner.

That’s a good example of a FIML query. And it is a good example of how a FIML query can lead to an extensive discussion. The extensive discussion in this case is how even very minor ambiguities like the potato incident can lead to or support hierarchical social structures.

In most non-FIML homes, I am pretty sure most people would not have inquired as my partner did. Most people would probably not say anything. Not saying anything would maintain whatever status quo had been established in that home.

If our home were a hierarchy and I were the top dog (and we did not do FIML), my partner would be forced to wonder silently about what I meant about my potato comment. Maybe she would suffer or feel confused or resentful. It is natural for humans to interpret language in a self-centric manner and it is natural (normal) for humans to be a little paranoid about what they hear. If my partner were the top dog and I had said that, she might question me in an aggressive manner or accuse me of being ungrateful. In that case, I would probably be forced to apologize and claim that I hadn’t meant it that way. Going forward, I might become more wary about what I said around her.

So, not inquiring, not resolving small linguistic ambiguities maintains the status quo. If the status quo is a hierarchy, it will be maintained.

If the status quo is not hierarchical, other problems will result from not resolving ambiguities even as small as the potato example. In the example of partners who live together, partners will feel a mounting sense of confusion and uncertainty as ambiguities like that accumulate. It will be harder for them to trust each other. Kind motives may be misinterpreted as being aggressive, and so on. In time, things may get so bad partners will separate or stay together but divide their lives into separate spheres of influence. If they separate, no status quo has been maintained (demonstrating my main point). If they divide their lives into separate spheres of influence, they will essentially be dividing their lives into small hierarchical spheres of influence (ditto). The garden is yours. The basement is mine. Et cetera.

Some hierarchy is inevitable and desirable between friends or in the home. But for close relationships, less hierarchy is better for most people because it is through egalitarian relationships that we learn the most about ourselves and each other, and it is in these sorts of relationships that we develop the most.

In hierarchical societies, generally speaking the person who is higher up decrees the resolution to all ambiguities. Do what the boss says. Just do what you’re told. She’s in charge. He is infallible, etc.

One reason hierarchies get away with decrees like that is it would simply take far too much time to resolve every ambiguity in a perfectly egalitarian way. Thus, almost all humans today are well-adapted to living in hierarchies. I am sort of OK with that in many professional and business contexts.

Where I am not OK with it is between close friends or couples, except for a little bit here and there depending on context (for example, one partner has special knowledge or experience the other doesn’t have). I suppose many people are very content living in a hierarchy in their own home, but that’s not for me. I don’t want my partner obeying me or being afraid of me and I don’t want to obey or be afraid of her either.

From this small potato example, I hope readers will be able to extrapolate to the formations of social groups. Surely social groups formed in many places at many different times. As history moved forward in time, less well-adapted groups were dominated by groups that were better adapted. And that is why the world is run by hierarchies almost everywhere.

One consequence of this is it affects the individual psychology of all of us who live in hierarchical societies. This may make us intolerant of ambiguity. It may make us view our private lives through hierarchical lenses. Without FIML, our massive training in hierarchical systems will lead to confusion and suffering in our private lives. The inevitable ambiguity will eat away at us if we have no way to fully deal with it.

Another consequence of living in hierarchical societies is people who for one reason or another don’t quite understand the rules will often be judged as mentally ill, dangerous, trouble-makers, outlaws, and so on. In very rigid societies you can be sent to a gulag or be burned at the stake for not conforming. In less rigid societies, you will be fired or ostracized.

How to learn/teach FIML

1) Learn/teach the basic FIML technique.

2) Learn/teach the emotional resolution that follows successful completion of the basic technique.

The basic FIML technique can be found here: How to do FIML.

A discussion of the emotional resolution can be found here: When is a FIML discussion finished?

It is very important that partners learn to carry FIML discussions all the way to the end—to the emotional resolution. A successful FIML discussion involves both feeling and understanding. The feeling of satisfaction or resolution signals that deep understanding has also occurred.

FIML and “sins of omission”

By “sin of omission” I mean refraining from doing a FIML query because you feel it will be too much trouble, seem contentious, take too long, expose a failing or weakness in yourself, hurt your partner’s feelings, and so on.

Some time ago we came up with the slogan: “It is always cheaper to do a FIML query than not do one.” This slogan is meant to help us guard against “sins of omission.”

If you refrain from saying something because you are afraid it will cause one of the problems mentioned above, you are right there causing a worse kind of problem in that you are assuming something about your partner that may not be (probably isn’t) true.

Even worse, you are refraining from informing your partner that you have concluded that some kinds of speech acts are not safe or pleasant to engage in with them.

It would be far, far cheaper for both you and your partner to deal with whatever you think the problem is the moment it arises.

This is so because small matters are much easier for us to understand and deal with than large matters. When we deal with small matters as they arise in normal conversation,we are doing at least two very important things: 1) we are dealing with the matter and its ramifications and 2) we are learning something very important about how we speak.

FIML changes the way we think not just what we think. If we fully understand that our understandings of each other can be very far off and if we fully understand how serious these misunderstandings can become, we no longer will see discussing minor mix-ups as a waste of time or something to be avoided.

I saw a post the other day by a beginning Buddhist who was confused about his mindfulness practice. He asked: “Every time I try to be mindful, my mind seems to fill with thoughts, words, and feelings. How do I stop that?”

Mindfulness is about being clear about what your mind is really doing. It’s not about pretending you have an ideal mind, or acting as if you do. If that Buddhist has a partner and if they both do FIML, they will experience the value of mindfulness in a very direct and beneficial way.

Human languages have evolved within violent hierarchical social systems that exploit our normally poor abilities to understand each other.

FIML practice allows us to be mindful of these limitations and go beyond them to achieve real understanding with our partner. The deep reward of FIML practice lies in that and in the profound feeling of resolution you will reach with your partner each and every time you carry a FIML discussion through to a mutually satisfying resolution.

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.

Why generalities don’t work

You cannot achieve satisfying communication by using general ideas or general role models.

For example, many Buddhists use a general sense of “compassion” or a vague understanding of “Buddhist wisdom” to get along with other people. This strategy can work for light duties at a Buddhist temple or for projecting a basic sense of who you are to other people, but it won’t be deeply satisfying.

The problem is very simple to state but harder to fix. The problem is we misunderstand each other very often and in very significant ways and these misunderstandings cannot be simply smoothed over with generalities.

Humans are deeply affected by their interactions with other humans. All those little mistakes in speaking and listening lead to big misunderstandings in our relationships, often rather quickly.

I cannot think of another way to deal with this fundamental problem except through FIML practice or something very much like it. When we communicate with people we care about, we have to have ways to restate our meaning, take it back, query each other, probe relevant semiotics. If we don’t, we will misunderstand each other in serious ways.