Mental (unemotional) identity is almost always a mix of public semiotics. Mental identity defines, conditions, and guides emotional identity.
Raw emotion might be thought of as a limbic response. The term limbic response will probably be replaced one day, but for now it is a recognized way to refer to strong emotional responses that happen suddenly and can often seize control of an individual’s thoughts and behavior.
Mental identity as a composite of public semiotics indicates the communicable beliefs of the individual—their religion or lack thereof; their sense of history and their place in it; their ethnic, racial, or national identity; their career and the specialized knowledge and attitudes that go with it; the intermingling of their beliefs with those of their friends, etc. If the person can more or less communicate it, or more or less find it outside of themselves, or more or less be able to alter it through communication with a trusted other, it is a public semiotic.
Mental identity defines, conditions, and guides emotional identity. In turn, emotional identity guides, conditions, and either restricts or expands mental identity. A person raised to hate some “other”, for example, may overcome their mental identity through feelings of compassion. The same person may overcome their feelings of hatred through reason. These are just crude examples.
For the most part, all people have problematical mental and emotional identities. The reason this is so is it is very hard to honestly access the kinds of semiotics and emotions that comprise the amalgam of emotional and mental identity.
Why is that? That is because public semiotics almost by definition cannot fully allow the individual to redefine him/herself. If you are a traditional anything (Catholic, Buddhist, atheist, crime boss, ethnic chauvinist, capitalist, etc.), once you start questioning the public aspects of your mental/emotional identity, all you can normally do is adopt some other version of public semiotics. You may become a lapsed Catholic, or a weekend Buddhist, or a soft versus hard atheist, a reformed crime boss, a tolerant ethnic chauvinist, a reform-minded capitalist, etc.
These changes will produce changes in your emotional identity, but you will still be hooked into a public semiotic and the emotions it defines and conditions. Maybe you will feel more doubt or uncertainty; maybe you will become apathetic; maybe you will get fired up about making reforms. It’s hard to say exactly what will happen, but at the core there will still be a public semiotic and an emotional conditioning closely related to it.
Buddhism, as I see it in this context, is designed to dig deeper into that mixture of mind and emotion and remove all thought and emotion that is not supported by profound inner experience and reason. Buddhism removes clinging to all thought and feeling that is false, deluded, and/or empty. Buddhism teaches us that clinging to things that are false, deluded, and/or empty causes suffering.
Thus, deep mindfulness coupled with years of contemplating/comprehending the emptiness and impermanence of “mental dharmas” (public semiotics in this context), leads to liberation from the core cause of suffering.
A few paragraphs above I said “…public semiotics almost by definition cannot fully allow the individual to redefine him/herself.” I said “almost by definition” because Buddhist practice, which we first learn as a public semiotic, does indeed allow individuals to redefine themselves.
Sometimes, it’s hard to do this in traditional Buddhist settings because the public semiotics can also get in the way. The temples and statues and quiet rooms are wonderful for beginners because they allow them to get a feeling for where Buddhist practice will take them. Intermediate practitioners, though, may get tired of the symbols and want to take a break from them. But after a time, they usually come to realize that the symbols and public semiotics (basic Dharma) were essential for their development and they will probably want to help others by donating time, money, or deep service to a temple.
It’s important to recognize where you are in all that. Surely you can guess that your initial enthusiasm may not last or that it will change. Surely you can see that becoming tired of the symbols and semiotics is not the end of Buddhist practice; it just shows you are starting to really get the idea. When you feel like going back to the temple and helping, you will know why.
Now what about private semiotics? Private semiotics are the signs, symbols, and language that we hold as idiosyncratic individuals and can communicate with others only with significant difficulty if at all.
Traditional Buddhist practice may not work well with private semiotics because traditional practice is, by definition, a public semiotic. So how do you get to your private semiotics? Contemplation, meditation, and mindfulness help, but you will always have problems with a sort of solipsism. How can you know that your analysis of something is right? You can’t unless you check it with other people. But as soon as you do that, you are back to public semiotics. The other person really won’t understand you all that well and/or you will end up revising your insights to look and feel like something more public.
I think the above basically describes why so many Buddhists kind of fantasize having a perfect teacher, a guru who will know how to guide them at all times. I am not going to say whether that is even possible, but for most of us, it won’t happen.
So what can we do? I propose in this context that Buddhists undertake FIML practice. I say this because FIML practice deals directly with the complex inter-workings of interpersonal semiotics and emotion. There are many links on this site describing how to do FIML and what it is.