FIML and Bernard Lonergan’s GEM

One aspect of FIML that continues to delight me, even after years of practice, is how so little can give us so much. In a nutshell “all” FIML does is stabilize and clarify our communication with one other person.

FIML does this by removing error and resolving ambiguities between two people. FIML cannot do this perfectly, but it does it well-enough that partners will experience a level of mental and emotional clarity that had not been available to them before.

I don’t believe anyone can know everything and I don’t believe anyone can even know very much. We really do not know if we are in a sim or not, so how can anyone make claims to philosophical certainty about anything, be they physicalist, atheist, religious, or even hedonist claims?

I am open to an individual saying he or she knows something through revelation, but their knowing does not help me because how do I know if they are telling the truth? Science gives us truths but many of the most interesting questions are outside of the realm of science. The Buddhist tradition is very good in this context because it asks us to base our understanding of “truth” on our own experience (which can and should include scientific inquiry).

The work of Bernard Lonergan struck me this morning as saying something important about how we know things and how we live in a world that is hugely mysterious.

His “generalized empirical method” (GEM) was designed to help people deal with meaning, ambiguity, and the relative values of ethical and philosophical truths. Lonergan’s theory of cognition, which is part of GEM, describes four levels of consciousness—“experience of data, understanding the data, judgment that one’s understanding is correct, and decision to act on the resulting knowledge.” (Source for this is the link in the paragraph above.)

His theory fits very well with Buddhism and is good way to assess what FIML does.

In FIML practice, partners “experience the data” of interacting with each other; they “understand this data” by doing a FIML inquiry on some part of it; based on this inquiry they are better able to “judge if their understanding is correct”; and following that judgment, they will be in a good position to decide what to do with the “resulting knowledge.”

FIML takes the weakest parts of interpersonal communication—the ambiguous and emotionally difficult parts—and turns them into some of the best parts; parts where understanding and resolution have been deepened even beyond the other parts.

FIML cannot explain the origin of the universe or which philosophy will dominate the world one hundred years from now, but it can provide a very good level of mutual understanding between partners. And this level of understanding will have a beneficial influence on many other aspects of partners’ lives—emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, and philosophical.

Both Lonergan and the Buddha described methods that a fragile individual can use to sift through the mountains of data that surround us to find the best stuff. FIML was designed to be a method that helps partners know one another to the best of their human capacities. It is a method that partners can use within a Buddhist, or other, framework to arrive at a better understanding of who and what they are.

Edit: Here’s a good quote from Wikipedia on Lonergan: The key to Lonergan’s project is “self-appropriation,” that is, the personal discovery and personal embrace of the dynamic structure of inquiry, insight, judgment, and decision. By self-appropriation, one finds in one’s own intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility the foundation of every kind of inquiry and the basic pattern of operations undergirding methodical investigation in every field. (Source)

FIML is a specific semiotic

FIML is a specific semiotic, but it also says interesting things about the general semiotics of all languages and communication systems.

As a specific semiotic, FIML influences individual psychology, behavior, and thought. Since FIML rules can be generalized and taught, FIML also shows something about all languages and their uses.

FIML is a way that two people can check the specific semiotics that exists between them. Without FIML, or something like it, individuals cannot do this.

If an individual does not do FIML or something very similar in their primary relationship, that relationship will be characterized by semiotics extrinsic to the relationship and/or by illusions.

I don’t want to overemphasize the semiotic content of FIML practice, but a basic sense of how signs and symbols are interpreted can be a great help to understanding FIML.

In FIML practice, your partner can explain the “text” of what they said much better than you can interpret it. This can only happen if both partners are honest and trust each other and the interpretation/explanation of the “text” is brought up quickly enough that little or nothing has been forgotten by either partner.

As for honesty and trust, it is my guess that these areas can be a problem for people because we humans are almost always required to interpret what is said to us without any possible recourse to a better explanation. There are three major reasons for this: 1) convention, habit; 2) timing; and 3) emotion.

Taking the second reason first, timing makes it very difficult to get good information about what a speaker means because when we ask quickly enough for them to actually still be able to remember, we will appear confrontational or rude. The speaker will become flustered and often answer with an excuse rather than an explanation.

This happens due to factor three, emotion. Language evolved in hierarchical societies. To question someone quickly about what they said is to seem to question them, to doubt them. In hierarchies, we do not question the orders we are given. We wait our turn, we let the speaker finish, we don’t interrupt, etc. Yet, if we don’t act quickly—within a few seconds—the speaker will have forgotten the fullness of their mind at the moment they spoke. Their explanation for the “text,” for what they said, will be lost forever, even if we have a video recording of it.

Due to the quickness of human emotion, virtually all societies everywhere have constructed rules for listening and speaking that completely preclude a FIML-type inquiry. Most beginning FIML partners will, therefore, experience some difficulty getting used to FIML queries. Our moods, emotions, mental states, thoughts, and more have all been long conditioned by social forces that constrain us in the very place where we need more freedom—getting the real explanation from our partner to replace our interpretation.

You would never want to run a business or do an engineering project based on ambiguous interpretations, but most of us conduct our love lives and friendships in just that way.

FIML is a specific semiotic in that it deals with the communications between two specific individuals. FIML does not tell these individuals what to think, say, or believe. It merely provides a technique for them to fully explore the semiotics and all ramifications of those semiotics that occur between them. A general semiotic is one that says something about all languages. FIML fixes a general weakness that occurs, to the best of my knowledge, in all human languages.


  • Made some changes in How to do FIML. Mainly removed the word neurosis from the explanation. Using that term was convenient but also became confusing because our definition was quite specific; that is, by neurosis we only meant “ongoing mistaken interpretation.” I think we have also become less “neurotic” due to FIML practice and so feel less need for the term.
  • The other change in the How to do FIML article involves explaining that the basic explanation of FIML is deceptively simple. You could say a computer is very simple because it works with 0s and 1s, but that doesn’t say much about computers. Similarly, basic FIML can be seen as a very simple practice, but as soon as it is undertaken during a real-life exchange with someone you care about, it will quickly expand into something very complex that is wholly unique to you and your partner.
  • We use the word semiotics a good deal because it suits FIML practice. We could even call FIML Dynamic Interpersonal Semiotics, or DIS.
  • Semiotics has a long history, but basically it is the science or art of interpreting signs, symbols, and language. Many semiotic interpretations are formal; that is, they classify signs and symbols and seek to determine relations among these categories.
  • In FIML practice, our main semiotic focus is on how partners interpret each others’ signs, symbols, and language.
  • This is a dynamic practice as opposed to a strictly theoretical or classificatory one in that the meaning of the semiotics as they are discovered in practice between partners is the subject.
  • This subject can only be reliably interpreted if the mental state of each partner is clearly remembered; that is, if each partner can clearly remember the semiotics in his or her mind at the time of speaking or listening.
  • If their mental/semiotic states are clearly remembered, then both partners will have good data that is worth analyzing.
  • Discussion and analysis of this data provides partners with very reliable insights into how they are actually functioning together, how they are understanding each other.
  • Rather than rely on psychological theories or other generalities, FIML partners are able to work with reliably objective interpersonal data.
  • This helps them avoid long detours into ambiguous discussions that often are counterproductive.
  • To understand, we must have a “prior category.” If you have never seen a hammock (if you have no prior category of hammock), you won’t know what one is upon first seeing it.
  • In this vein, much of what we hear is understood by “prior categories” in our minds.
  • FIML helps us check our prior categories. If one or more of my prior categories is mistaken, I will mishear a great deal of what is said to me.
  • If my trusted partner tells me that the prior category that I used to interpret her statement is wrong, or not applicable to what she just said, I must accept her data. Her assessment of her state of mind is better than my assessment of her state of mind.
  • Once partners get used to this, they will find it is a great relief. Who wants mistaken prior categories that cause needless suffering?
  • When we clear away dysfunctional prior categories through FIML practice, we will notice many beneficial changes in our mental and emotional make-up.
  • The core of all our behaviors, beliefs, motives, and emotions is meaning and how we interpret it.
  • If we can see that an emotional prior category is dysfunctional (i.e. it is getting used when it does not apply), we will find it fairly easy to discard it.
  • Having a good partner that you trust and that trusts you is essential for FIML practice because the quality of the data you will be working with depends entirely on mutual trust, mutual caring.

How do we know where our semiotics come from?

For the most part, we don’t.

Look at it this way—how does someone like Dick Cheney, say, know he knows what he is doing, or was doing as vice-president?

He had a semiosis about what he was doing and where he stood within the American political/military hierarchy, but how did he know that that semiosis wasn’t a front for another semiosis (game plan) hidden behind it? How would someone like Cheney find out that there was no other game plan hidden behind the game plans he knew about?

I don’t think he did know or could have known. Did Cheney realize that? Does he realize it now? I can’t answer.

One way someone like that could get information that shows he at least knows a lot, if not the whole thing, is to exercise power. If someone can exercise power and not be stopped, they can be kind of certain that the semiosis they are working within is “true.” Their game plan worked, so there is a greater chance they are in control than if it had not worked. But how can they be certain? I don’t think they can be.

Take another example: A crime boss in the 1980s might have done his thing for years believing all the while that he had the system figured out. Because he kept getting away with his crimes (because he was able to continuously exercise power without being stopped), he may have come to believe that his game plan worked, that he was at the top of his power structure, that his semiosis was “true.”

But we know that many of those bosses in the 1980s were wrong. For years their phones and meeting places were bugged, leading to successful prosecutions under RICO laws. The bosses thought that they had found a way to distance themselves from the nitty gritty of their crimes, but they were wrong. Their game plan (their semiosis) was wrong.

So, law enforcement and the courts had a better game plan, a “truer” semiosis. But how did they know the real quality of their semiosis? Sure, they busted the Mafia, but did they bust all of it and who did they not even look at? How do they know that there aren’t more gangs or secret societies that may even now be controlling them?

I don’t think they do know or even can know. Before you start thinking I am paranoid, consider that behind-the-scenes control of American politics, or any politics, is common; Tammany Hall, Mafia control of NYC politics decades ago, Hoover’s denial that the Mafia even existed, the current state of our two-party “political” system, Libor, etc.

A similar sort of analysis can be applied to news. The problems politicians have with really knowing the deep game plan or ever speaking about it filters through our less-than-perfect news media to be consumed by citizens as bits of information structured into stories that are easy to follow. The American people do not govern themselves but rather at most serve as a weak brake on groups at the top who do almost anything they want.

How do those groups know which one is on top? I am not sure they do. Is NSA domestic surveillance actually an attempt to find out?

If you know everything about everybody and you know how everybody is connected to everybody else, can you know for certain who is at the top?

If so, that will be a first in human history. I do recognize it is possible, though there would be problems with who controls the data, who analyzes it.

A basic point I want to make in this post is that power is very much about meaning, about semiotics. If you can exercise power and not be stopped, you know something about your semiosis. That sure as heck is not the Buddhist way to go about it, but that is the way a great deal of power and semiotics actually works in this world. Power defines meaning.

When this function of power and meaning gets down to the levels of ordinary people, it greatly affects what we say to each other and how we think about each other. Basically, far as I can tell, it causes most people to live in fear because we all know that if we say anything unusual, other people will start wondering about us. If we say the wrong thing, someone will be offended and talk behind our back, or worse.

So it becomes dangerous to say a great many things, or at least very difficult. Almost every subject of real interest is shrouded in semiotics that permit just a couple of standard views. Don’t like Obama, vote for Romney, what’s your problem?

I point all of this out because it is crucial for understanding who we are to understand how ideas, semiotics, and cultures are formed. We live in hierarchies. In hierarchies, the top people determine a great deal of the semiotics of that society. They further their semiotics and prove it to themselves by exercising power. Those people themselves cannot really ever be certain that they know their true position in the hierarchy. How much less can ordinary people expect to know the truth of the semiotics that trickles down to them?

Not everything is stuck in a culture you can’t control and can’t be sure of, but most/much of it is.

In this context, FIML practice allows partners to examine and discuss all aspects of the semiotics they hold in common or as individuals. Since FIML provides partners with a very good level of interpersonal certitude and the means to reinvigorate this certitude at any time, FIML allows partners to say what they want to each other without being misunderstood. It provides a freedom of speech and expression that allows the mind to bloom in ways that normal adherence to normal cultural semiotics cannot.

Just as politicians and powerful people can never be sure they know what others are thinking or where they stand, so ordinary people can’t either. All of them are trapped in the semiotics of their culture, which is usually a hierarchy. It is only through FIML or FIML-like techniques that individuals can free their communication systems from the need to create meaning through self-assertion or submission.


One of the features of FIML practice that interests me is how it depends upon and strengthens trust between partners.

I cannot think of another system that strengthens interpersonal trust as well as FIML.

My understanding of game theory is not very good, but I suspect FIML could be seen as a game that works with human consciousness to strengthen trust in six ways. If there are two FIML partners—A and B—partner A will strengthen trust in B, in A, and in A and B together. The same is true for partner B. Added together, trust is strengthened in six different ways.

For example, after doing FIML properly for a few months, I will almost certainly trust my partner more than before, myself more than before, and the both of us together more than before. I will be able to trust myself more because I will have a better sense of what to say and why. I will be able to see how my honest answers have a good effect on both my partner and myself. From this, I will be able to quite reliably conclude that my partner is experiencing something similar. And from this we will both be able to see/conclude that the both of us together have a much more trustworthy interpersonal system than we had before we started doing FIML.

A few months of FIML practice will make it abundantly clear to both partners that lying is a huge waste of time. A few months of practice also shows partners how ambiguity and/or soft lies commonly arise in non-FIML relationships. Those same few months will also help partners find many of their blind spots. They will discover how cultural conditioning influences their perceptions and expectations.

Some other systems

Some other systems for establishing interpersonal trust are making vows, getting married, exchanging gifts or confessions, signing agreements, or even spending 100% of your time together.

The best or deepest of these methods is probably the vow, but even a well-meant vow, willingly and mutually undertaken by both parties, will not be all that reliable because it will be stated in general terms and have no way of dealing with the thousands of unique situations that will always occur in all lives. Vows typically have few rules for communication and they rarely, if ever, take into consideration the enormous difficulties all people have with the ongoing details of interpersonal communication.

Vows are general and often highly emotional. Exchanging gifts or making confessions may be slightly more concrete or specific, but there is less obligation. At their best, they are one-time signals of an implied vow. At their worst, they are ways to trick others.

Prenuptial agreements, or other contracts, can limit damage from fake vows or real ones that cannot be kept, but they are actually based on a sort of mistrust and won’t do much to strengthen trust. Some people have actually tried spending all their time together, but all this assures is that partners can’t say or do anything that violates their vows. It doesn’t mean they are telling the truth to each other or even know how. Maybe it would work. I don’t know. I respect people who do this, but it would drive me nuts.

FIML as a game

FIML can be thought of as a game in many ways. Here is one basic formula for FIML as a game that may stand in for many others. It’s very basic, so enhance it or add to it as you see fit or as fits your circumstances.

The formula deals with semiotics by grouping the ongoing semiotics of a conversation between two people into three parts. The first part (the first semiotic grouping) is the context in which the conversation is occurring. The second is the semiotics in the mind of one partner, and the third is the semiotics in the mind of the other partner.

Generally, the context in which the conversation is occurring defines many aspects of the conversation. If partners are in a museum, the museum displays and the need to be quiet will determine a good deal of what is said and how it is understood. If partners are at work, the context will be different.

If partners are relaxed in their own home and with a decent amount of free time, the context will be perfect for a FIML discussion, should the need arise.

No matter what the context, partner A will speak with some sort of semiotic in their mind. It might be very specific or it might be vague. Partner B will listen in much the same way—they may be hyper-attentive to one aspect of what A is saying or they may be in a relaxed state or even daydreaming.

There are many ways that the semiotics of A and B can and will be different. In most cases, these differences glide along and resolve or are ignored in common ways without causing problems. You can’t possible monitor everything that happens in your minds.

But, if the semiotics in the minds of partners A and B get too far apart—if they diverge from each other too much—misunderstandings and mismatched feelings will begin to arise.

This is when you do FIML—when the semiotics in your mind and your partner’s mind are no longer referring to the same thing and one or both of you notices, either by feeling the mix-up or by other signs.

The game is to see the mix-up right when it happens, then to discuss how and why it happened, appreciate that it is very common for stuff like that to happen, figure out what to do about it (if anything), enjoy what you have learned, and then keep doing what you were doing.

The value of this game is you will not only keep doing what you were doing but you will enjoy it even more. If you don’t do the game, you won’t get that added level of fun and you won’t see more deeply into your shared awareness.

FIML as mindfulness

A friend yesterday said in an email that FIML was working well for him and his fiancee. He also referred to it as Buddhist mindfulness. FIML is greatly enhanced by Buddhist mindfulness, but it is not exactly the same because FIML involves two people being mindful (and honest) together. Having a second person do detailed mindfulness with you is different from doing mindfulness alone. When you do mindfulness or introspection by yourself, you have no way of checking your work. When you do it with an honest partner, you can check your conclusions, and very often find out why you were wrong.

The value of FIML lies in being able to check our mindfulness with an honest partner who is also being mindful. Doing this corrects interpersonal mistakes as well as individual idiosyncratic ones. FIML also increases trust and honesty while improving communication overall between partners.

FIML and practical semiotics

Though FIML practice may appear to deal mainly with spoken language, it actually works primarily by stopping language, or the heedless use of language, so partners can observe and consider the semiotics that underlie what they are saying to each other.

A simple way to understand what FIML does is to consider the main components of a typical act of communication between two people. In this case, the components are semiotics, language, and emotion. These terms can be expanded if need be to include other factors such as behaviors, partners’ bodies, instincts, sensations, etc. But for now let’s just consider semiotics, language, and emotion.

Semiotics are like cables or snakes or ribbons of meaning that accompany our uses of language. They underlie our words and weave in and out of them. Words and language can also be thought of as a kind of semiotic, but for now, let’s separate them. Semiotics is the meaning while language is one way of expressing that meaning.

Emotions as they arise in communicative acts can be of many types. In FIML practice, partners will find that they most often need to use FIML techniques to deal with sudden emotions that seize control of the mind and thence influence or determine what it says or does.

Basically, in all interpersonal communication, strong emotions can and will get attached to a semiotic. In normal non-FIML communication, this attachment almost always occurs without conscious control and it is usually not discussed by the people communicating, and almost never discussed rationally.

A mix-up (or contretemps, as we have sometimes called it) occurs between two people when they have significantly different semiotics in their minds and when one or both of them have attached an emotion to their semiotic.

Notice how closely that description fits with Buddhist thinking—when we become attached to or cling to a wrong view, we cause suffering.

When either partner notices a mix-up, they should initiate a FIML query or discussion. The main point of the discussion is to find out how partners’ semiotics are diverging, if they are. The internal sign that this may be happening is a sudden feeling, usually a negative feeling, based on what your partner has said (or what you think or feel they meant).

Mix-ups occur very often. I would say it is normal to experience a few mix-ups per hour of conversation even with a very close friend or partner. The reason this happens is we depend a great deal on semiotics when we speak to each other. With close friends, our semiotics become more intimate, personal, and emotional. That’s the whole fun of having close friends, but that is also where the danger lies. If friends or partners don’t do FIML, their small mix-ups will compound and lead to big mix-ups.

FIML is designed to catch mix-ups right as they happen. The reason for this is if you wait even a few seconds too long, you won’t be able to remember accurately where the mix-up started, what provoked it. And your partner won’t be able to remember accurately what they were thinking when you first felt the emotional jangle that signaled the appearance of a mix-up. If either partner can’t accurately remember what was in their mind at the onset of the mix-up, you can’t fix it at that time. You have to agree to be quicker or more observant next time and move on for now.

If you keep trying to get to the root of a mix-up whose origin has been forgotten, you will get lost in generalities (general semiotics) and not only not fix the problem but probably make it worse. Just remember that something happened and that it will probably happen again. See if you can catch it next time. It will almost certainly happen again because a mix-up almost always is based on one or both partners having a strong emotional attachment to a semiotic and then associating that semiotic with triggers or cues.

For example, I have a habitual strong emotional attachment to the semiotic that other people do not care about me or what I am saying. If I get that wrong in a conversation—that is, if that semiotic wrongly lights up inside of me—I am going to make mistakes about what the other person is saying or not saying and why. True, sometimes people really don’t care. But if I have that reaction with my partner while she is caring, I have made a huge mistake. I will feel bad about myself and her and I will be completely wrong. I will have taken something good (her caring) and turned it into it’s opposite. That mistake will then cause me to make others. I might speak sharply or start sulking or go do something else, leaving my partner feeling abandoned. How sad that is, but how very, very common.

FIML is designed to prevent that kind of bullshit. From this small example, I hope you can see how serious even a little mistake can be.

FIML allows partners to engage in an entirely different way of speaking to each other. It teaches us how to think differently. Not all mix-ups are serious. Many of them are neutral, some are funny, and virtually all of them are interesting. As you get better at identifying when you and your partner are starting to veer off into mixed-up semiotics, you will find that the range of subjects you can comfortably talk about increase greatly. How you talk to each other will become a normal subject and, with time, you will really feel that you and your partner can depend on each other for good clear speech that arises out of your own unique individualities.