What conversation are we in?

In a large sense—macrocosmically—are we engaged in a Buddhist conversation? In a semiotic one? A psychological one? An anthropological one? An uncategorizable, open, Internet one?

In a small sense—microcosmically—we would do well to ask ourselves this question every time we interact with anyone. Points to consider in these cases are: how much time do we have; what factors are we considering and how are we weighing them; are we understanding each other well; why are we talking at all, and so on?

The URL of this site is americanbuddhist.net, so I suppose we are engaging in a Buddhist conversation. With American characteristics, whatever that means.

We’ve had this site for a few years, and in the early days got so many comments about how there is no such thing as “American Buddhism” that I felt the need to define it as a largely geographical term.

Most “modern Buddhists” living outside of traditional Buddhist areas would probably agree that Buddhism itself is really a conversation, an ongoing research project, a way of actively thinking, a participatory tradition that is not written in stone and never has been written in stone.

This is surely the position of American Buddhist Net and I am all but certain the Buddha himself would agree with us. Maybe he would not agree with the specifics of everything we say, but he would surely support our wish to think for ourselves and apply the Dharma to the world and lives we are now living.

So, I suppose this is largely a Buddhist-oriented, open Internet conversation that often brings up semiotics and, to a lesser degree, psychology and anthropology. The more I think about semiotics, the more I see it as a very valuable modern angle on Buddhism. More on that in a moment.

The more I think about Buddhism and semiotics, the less I seem to think about psychology. For example, I hardly use the term personality anymore because it just doesn’t say much from either a Buddhist or a semiotic point of view. In the first place, from a Buddhist point of view, anything we might call personality is always changing; it’s impermanent, empty, transformable. True, Buddhism does recognize “persistent traits,” but this term is not used often and it is rarely, if ever, used to define someone in the way our current sense of personality defines people.

FIML practice will show partners fairly quickly how much of their thinking about each other is based on unsupportable notions concerning personalities and what they are and how they function.

From a semiotic point of view, especially one informed by Buddhism, we can see much the same thing—as soon as you try to say what someone’s personality is, you will generate a new sign that needs further analysis, and so on ad infinitum. The fact that we will be faced with an “infinite interpretation,” an “infinite continuum,” where we will never be able to find an “absolute individual” very much recalls Buddhist thinking on emptiness.

I first encountered the idea that semiotics shows us that there are no “absolute individuals” in Umberto Eco’s excellent The Limits of Interpretation, which I recommend.

In place of personality, I now see individuals as more or less manifesting cultural or anthropological characteristics which they communicate as semiotic signs, symbols, and “meanings.”

When you talk to close friends or partners, you have to do a good job at microcosmic, real-time, semiotic analysis. If you don’t, you will make many mistakes and soon come to feel estranged from your friends and/or be forced to relate to them in static ways. If you don’t do FIML or something very much like it, you will be all but forced to cling to static semiotics. FIML could be defined as “microcosmic, real-time, semiotic analysis” between friends.

So far, in my readings on semiotics, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, or Buddhism, I have not seen anything that asks people to engage in “microcosmic, real-time, semiotic analyses” with each other. Nothing like FIML.

Maybe there is something, but I haven’t seen it. That’s the reason I started this post the way I did. What kind of conversation are we having? Is it possible for one person to read that widely in so many subjects? I don’t think it is. I probably know more about Buddhism, or have read more widely and thought more about it, than the other subjects. So, for me, this conversation is centered in Buddhism more than the other subjects. I like the way Buddhism is grounded in morality, so that’s another reason.

Semioticians tend to talk a lot about philosophy and literature, while Buddhism centers us more in the lives we are living as we perceive them, however fallibly.

Here are a few terms from semiotics that will be helpful to Buddhists: fallibilism, synechism, vaugeness or indeterminacy.

Fallibilism is the philosophical principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world.

Synechism holds that the essential feature in philosophic speculation is continuity. It denies that all is merely ideas, likewise that all is merely matter, and mind-matter dualism. To my understanding, synechism denies in principle the “absolute individual,” or in Buddhist terms the “own being” of anything, which is another way of saying all things are empty.

Vagueness or indeterminacy, especially with regard to speech acts, mean that we can never be completely certain of what others mean or what we are hearing.

Semiotics is at the center of some other modern major innovations in how we think, such a deconstructionism, relative frames theory, and the vague, propositional indeterminacy that underlies multiculturalism. I often wonder how much semioticians and modern philosophers have been influenced by Buddhist ideas.

Taken together, the study of semiotics and Buddhism deeply changes the way we see the world and live our lives. They affect how we understand what it is to be human, how we communicate, and what we communicate. Buddhism is an excellent foundation for semiotics, while semiotics can extend Buddhist concepts into a more detailed, modern idiom.

How social rejection can help those who think independently

This article is interesting: Social Rejection Can Inhibit Cognitive Ability Or Fuel Imaginative Thinking.

Lead author of the paper, Sharon Kim says:

“For people who already feel separate from the crowd, social rejection can be a form of validation.Rejection confirms for independent people what they already feel about themselves, that they’re not like others. For such people, that distinction is a positive one leading them to greater creativity.” (Source in above link)

The actual paper can be found here: Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought?

In the Buddhist tradition, there is the idea that “negative conditions” can inspire us to move forward. For people who tend to think independently, having  a few doors slam can be a good thing.

Roger Williams

Roger Williams (c. 1603—1683) was an English Protestant theologian who was an early proponent of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In 1636, he began the colony of Providence Plantation, which provided a refuge for religious minorities. Williams started the first Baptist church in America, the First Baptist Church of Providence. He was a student of Native American languages and an advocate for fair dealings with Native Americans. Williams was arguably the very first abolitionist in North America, having organized the first attempt to ban slavery in any of the original thirteen colonies. (Source)

This Wikipedia article is worth reading. Williams was a strong and early advocate of freedom of religion and separation of church and state. His ideas probably influenced the principals expressed in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Buddhists, and others, would do well to reflect on the great importance of the First Amendment, which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

“Religion” means something different today than it did during Williams’ life, but Williams’ underlying belief that each individual must be free to follow their own religious convictions is as fundamentally important today as was back then.

American Buddhists obviously benefit from these protections, but even hard atheists and those who dislike all religions should ponder the profound importance of the individual right to believe what you want and to profess your beliefs without interference from the state.

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

…the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates. (Source)

This declaration was made on July 7, 2012.

Here is a report on the declaration: Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings.

Suñña Sutta: Empty

Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?”

“Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty. And what is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self? The eye is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Forms… Eye-consciousness… Eye-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self.

“The ear is empty…

“The nose is empty…

“The tongue is empty…

“The body is empty…

“The intellect is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Ideas… Intellect-consciousness… Intellect-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Thus it is said that the world is empty.”

©1997 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Transcribed from a file provided by the translator.
This Access to Insight edition is ©1997–2012.
Terms of use: You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever, provided that: (1) you only make such copies, etc. available free of charge; (2) you clearly indicate that any derivatives of this work (including translations) are derived from this source document; and (3) you include the full text of this license in any copies or derivatives of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved. (Source)

Retail semiotics

This short interview is worth reading: ‘What About Tutoring Instead of Pills?’

A quote:

Kagan: I share your unhappiness. But that is the history of humanity: Those in authority believe they’re doing the right thing, and they harm those who have no power.

Semiotics—what we take to have meaning and how we perceive it symbolically—is generally driven by “those in authority.” They may be academics, doctors, media personalities, corporations, politicians, and so on.

We structure our understanding of ourselves and the world around us based on the semiotics we have accepted. Ordinary people accept, almost always unconsciously, “retail semiotics” that are fashioned, marketed, and sold by “those in authority.”

For example, what has happened to our retail understanding of child development and the treatment of mental illness is the semiotics of these categories is dominated by Big Pharma, which pushes expensive drug treatments while at the same time funding research which has been compromised by that funding.

You can see similar retail-wholesale arrangements in many other areas in any society in the world.

Rather than thinking of people as developing psychologically, it can be very helpful to think of them as developing linguistically, emotionally, and semiotically.

Semiotics is not the same as linguistics, but it does develop in rough parallel to linguistics. As our capacities for language mature, so also does our understanding of meaning and the signs and symbols that bear meaning.

If we decide on a practical career and have few other interests, our understanding of the semiotics of other fields (art, sociology, Buddhism, etc.) will probably suffer. If we are raising a child who is doing poorly in school, we may very well just follow along with what is recommended by “experts” who are themselves retail consumers of the “child development semiotic.”

If those “experts”—a pediatrician, say, and a couple of teachers—claim our child “needs” drugs to perform well in school, we will probably accept what they say with few reservations.

It is very difficult not to do this in many areas of our lives.

The Buddha is famous for saying we should not blindly believe him or anyone else but that we should discover for ourselves what is true. In modern terms, this can be restated to mean be careful of retail semiotics, be skeptical of them and where they originate, look to the evidence and who is providing it.

As Kagan says, if your kid is having trouble in school “…what about tutoring instead of pills?”


Edit: The reason we use the term semiotics on this site is when FIML partners do a FIML query, the data in their minds at the moment(s) in question is best described as raw semiotics. That is, it is the raw material that makes up the composite of consciousness at the moment(s) in question. This material, or data, can be sharply focused, vague, irrelevant to the subject at hand, emotional, associative, organized, disorganized, and so on. When partners get good at observing this data accurately and describing it to each other, they will find that much of it, if not all of it, is connected to a psycho-semiotic network that underlies awareness and gives rise to it. Understanding this network is extremely valuable and will provide partners with great insights into how and why they feel, think, and behave as they do. It is very difficult (and I think impossible) to understand this network through solitary pursuits only. The reason for this is a solitary mind will fool itself. In contrast, two minds working together will be able to observe this network with much greater accuracy. Language, semiotics, and emotion are fundamentally interpersonal operations, so it is reasonable to expect that deep comprehension of these operations will be best achieved through interpersonal activity.

Lies and self-deception

Most Buddhist practitioners will immediately understand and agree with the results of a recent study that shows that people feel better when they tell fewer lies. The study (Telling fewer lies linked to better health and relationships.*) is modest but worth considering.

Notice that the improvements found in the study come from refraining from lying.

“We found that the participants could purposefully and dramatically reduce their everyday lies, and that in turn was associated with significantly improved health,” says lead author Anita Kelly. (Same link as above.)

A good deal of Buddhist practice involves refraining from unwholesome thoughts and behaviors and ultimately eliminating them. Refraining from lying, or “false speech,” is the fourth of the Five Precepts, which are the basis of Buddhist morality. Lies cloud the mind and hinder clear thinking.

Buddhist mindfulness gets us to slow down and question how sure we are of our thoughts, feelings, and judgements. It helps us refrain from willfully lying, and it  can help us refrain from unconsciously lying if we have the help of a trusted partner.

Another term for unconscious lying is self-deception. Self-deception may make us feel good for awhile in some circumstances, but in the long-run it is much the same as any other kind of lying. It’s not true. It constitutes inner false speech and causes serious intellectual and emotional contradictions that will almost certainly lead to wrong thoughts, behaviors, and interpretations.

Michael S. Gazzaniga in a recent online essay has this to say:

The view in neuroscience today is that consciousness does not constitute a single, generalized process. It involves a multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes, the products of which are integrated by the interpreter module….Our conscious experience is assembled on the fly as our brains respond to constantly changing inputs, calculate potential courses of action, and execute responses like a streetwise kid. (Source)

It is our “interpreter module,” to use Gazzaniga’s words, that can and does unconsciously lie to us or allow us to engage in self-deception.

In the same essay, Gazzaniga also says:

In truth, when we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to nonconscious processing….The reality is, listening to people’s explanations of their actions is interesting—and in the case of politicians, entertaining—but often a waste of time. (Source: same as above)

FIML practice may not be capable of giving us access to “nonconscious processing,” but it will give us access to what is/was in our working memories while showing us that what we said or heard may have been vague, ambiguous, muddled, or wrong.

With the aid of a trusted partner, FIML helps us catch our minds on the fly. Partners are encouraged to refrain from long explanations and just stick to what they remember having been in their minds during the few seconds in question. This forestalls long, self-deceiving explanations.

Beginning FIML partners will likely be amazed at how often their interpretation of what their partner said is completely wrong.

FIML emphasizes using trivial incidents because partners will be much less likely to self-deceive when the incident is minor. A minor mistake is easier to change than a major one. If partners keep working with minor mistakes and clear them up as soon as they arise, how can major misunderstandings even develop?

In the future, we may have brain scans that can help us separate fact from fiction in our minds, but for now, I know of no better way to do it than with a trusted partner in FIML practice. Your partner will help you see the minutiae of your mind as it actually works and impacts them. This leads to a large reduction in lying and self-deception and an increase in feelings of well-being and mutual understanding.


*Sorry, could not find the actual study online.

The human operating system

Traditional human operating systems include a standardized language, standardized semiotics, and a “personality,” which is generally understood to be a measure of how the individual has adapted to the standardized language and semiotics of their time-period.

Standardized in this context means that the language the individual uses is some version of a recognizable dialect, while their semiotics is some version of a recognizable subculture, which may include such elements as clothing styles, beliefs, goals, expectations, education, mannerisms, and so on.

When we speak of a person’s psychology, we usually mean their emotional make-up, their habitual thought processes, their fears or talents, the sum total of their experiences, etc. In this context, a person’s semiotics can be understood to be the signs, symbols, and underlying meanings they see, feel, believe, and respond to. Semiotics, as we are using the term, might also be understood to indicate the distinctive features of a subculture.

For example, the musical semiotics of someone who likes jazz and does not like country will be different from someone who likes country and not jazz. This difference may say something about these two people’s psychologies but in many cases it is much simpler and clearer to just talk about the differences between their semiotics. Similarly, their different tastes in music may say something about the subcultures they belong to, but again it is often much more useful to isolate these differences as different semiotics.

Most people are using a traditional human operating system (THOS). A THOS is defined in the first paragraph above. It is characterized by being largely static and roughly agreed upon by many people.

Personality today is generally understood to be something that is sort of defined or indicated by the Big Five personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. But how do you measure that? Well, you use tests that explore the standardized language and semiotics that is deemed “appropriate” to the culture to which the testee belongs.

If the testee is not fitting into the standard mold (the standard semiotics), the tester will probably conclude that the testee is either not agreeable, open, conscientious, or extroverted. If the testee is seriously bothered by the standard semiotics for which he or she is being tested, they may also be marked as “neurotic” by the test-giver.

How would you do on a Big Five personality test given in North Korea by North Korean psychologists?

The problem with standardization of “personality” metrics and/or semiotics is standards only help us delineate ourselves in some ways; they cannot be expected to truly define us.

To define yourself, to know yourself, you need an independent operating system (IOS). Obviously, if your IOS gets too far from reasonable human norms (decent ethics, being rational, respecting evidence, etc.), you will lose the good things that humans have figured out over the centuries.

So how do you get an IOS but remain able to draw on all the good stuff of human history and the culture(s) you know best?

You have to change how you use and perceive language and semiotics. You have to find a way to free yourself from being a standardized semiotic between your ears.

If you read the Big Five personality traits and start measuring yourself according to them, what is the basis for your measurement? What does openness mean to you? Gay sex on a roller coaster? Being open-minded about an essay like this one? If you feel sensitive and nervous in North Korea (neurotic as defined by the Big Five) is that good or bad?

What if the society you live in makes you feel nervous and sensitive because you know it can be violent, greedy, hypocritical, and ignorant? Would you feel secure and confident (the opposite of neurotic) if you were in an office where you knew white collar crime (Libor, say) was being done daily? Would you be open to blowing the whistle and risking ostracism or even jail time?

When language, semiotics, and personality are all defined in more or less standard ways and you think you need to go along with that, you can say good-bye to what the Buddha called the thusness or suchness of your being. Buddhism is all about discovering/uncovering the “ultimate reality” of the “real nature” that inheres within us.

One problem with Buddhism, though, is it has become standardized. If you are nice, trusting, and sweet to everyone you meet, you will have your head handed to you in a matter of days in most US cities. We simply cannot expect to model behavior today according to an ancient monastic ideal that we very probably cannot even understand anymore.

The best way to get an IOS, and I believe practice Buddhism in today’s world, is do FIML because FIML practice allows you and your partner to use all the good stuff from human history to develop your own way of talking to each other and understanding each other. A FIML generated IOS frees partners’ semiotics from extrinsic definitions and this allows both of them to comprehend themselves and each other in unique ways that account for their idiosyncrasies—the suchness and thusness of both of them, taken together and independently.

If an individual pursues thusness alone, they will form many wrong ideas because it is impossible for an individual to check their own work. When FIML partners work together and remain mindful of the good things in human history, they are able to check their work and discover the suchness that underlies them.

As mentioned in other posts, FIML does not tell you what to think or believe. Rather, it provides a method to help you and your partner think for yourselves. FIML will change your THOS to an IOS.

If FIML partners are guided by fundamental Buddhist ideas, they will progress more quickly and be less likely to take wrong turns. Understanding the emptiness of standardized semiotics will make it easier for partners to see how cultural norms can interfere with a deep comprehension of life. Keeping basic Buddhist ethics in mind at all times will help partners avoid moral excess or thoughtlessness. Contemplation of dependent origination will give partners a ready guide to understanding the uniqueness of every communicative event. Buddhist teachings on clinging or attachment, especially when understood as clinging to wrong ideas or wrong semiotics, will greatly help partners discard mistaken beliefs and views that may have been influencing them for decades. The Buddha’s teaching on impermanence will make it easier to see through the long history of THOS and why we need new ways to speak, listen, and think today.

Rational actor, muddled actor

The notion in economics that humans are “rational actors” has been widely, and rightly in my opinion, criticized. Here is the basic argument against “rational choice theory” in economics as put by Edward J. Nell and Karim Errouaki:

To make rational calculations projectible, the agents may be assumed to have idealized abilities, especially foresight; but then the Inductive Problem is out of reach because the agents of the world do not resemble those of the model. The agents of the model can be abstract, but they cannot be endowed with powers actual agents could not have. This also undermines Methodological Individualism; if behaviour cannot be reliably predicted on the basis of the ‘rational choices of agents’ a social order cannot reliably follow from the choices of agents. (Source)

The problem is even worse when it comes to linguistics. All people much of the time are neither rational speakers nor rational listeners.

Speech arises out of complex mental, emotional, and environmental conditions. As speakers, we are often not aware of many of those conditions. The same is true for listeners. When the muddled aspects of speaking and listening are added together, it’s a wonder anyone ever understands anything.

The even deeper problem is most muddled speech and listening never gets figured out. In place of mutual understanding, we normally have to go with muddled interpretations of what people are saying and how they understand what we have said.

Don’t believe me? Watch carefully what you say and how you are being understood. Listen carefully to others and notice how you are understanding what they are saying. It’s a very messy process.

If basing a model of economics on “rational actors” does not work, the situation is far worse for psychology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, history, and more. The problem is worse because economic behavior is simpler than linguistic behavior, which underlies all of these subjects.

A good model of sociology might say something like this: People are emotionally and mentally muddled and they communicate very badly with each other except in simple situations or on the basis of simple semiotic models they already agree on. Culture, therefore, is little more than the simple semiotic models people use to communicate because they don’t know how to communicate in any other way.

A model for psychology might say something like this: Most people have profound emotional problems because they cannot communicate with others except in simple situations or on the basis of simple semiotic models they already agree on. This is a disaster in intimate interpersonal relationships, often leading to anger, sadness, alienation, and depression.

A model for history might say: The above two paragraphs describe major historical forces that are as significant as economic and environmental forces.

We won’t fix the world just yet or change the course of history, but as individuals we can do something about this with our best friends and life partners. FIML corrects these problems because FIML exposes communication errors and corrects them while they are happening. If communication errors are not caught while they are happening (at least a good deal of the time), partners will be forced to rely on simple semiotics, simple extrinsic cultural norms, to conduct their emotional lives together, and that is a recipe for disaster.

People are muddled actors when it comes to communication and this is a serious problem when it comes to intimate interpersonal communication. But we can become much more rational and communicate much more clearly with at least one other person by using FIML techniques.