Semiotic codes

Simply stated, semiotic codes are the conventions used to communicate meaning.

Codes can be compared to puppet masters that control the words and semiotic bundles that people use when speaking and listening. For many people, semiotic codes are largely unconscious, functioning mainly as limits to communication or as givens.

Some examples of codes might be the ready-made formulas of politics or the ordinary assumptions of any culture anywhere.

Codes work well in most cases when we do ordinary or formal things, but they inhibit thought and communication when we want to go beyond ordinary or formal interactions and behaviors.

Unconscious, unexamined, or strongly-held codes can be a disaster in interpersonal relations if one or both (or all) parties are rigid in their definitions and understanding of the codes being used. These are the sorts of conditions that lead to absurd exchanges at the dinner table and are one of the main reason most of us learn never to talk about politics or religion at most gatherings.

Gathering for dinner itself is a code. On Thanksgiving we are expected to break bread without breaking the code of silence on politics or whatever else your family can’t or won’t talk about. There is not much the individual can do to change this because the harder you try—no matter how good your intentions—the more it will seem that you are breaking the code, being aggressive, or threatening the (probably fairly weak) bonds that hold your dining unit together.

Many years ago, Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese proposed a theory about communication known as the Uncertainty Reduction Theory. This theory deals with how people initially get to know each other. It proposes:

…that, when interacting, people need information about the other party in order to reduce their uncertainty. In gaining this information people are able to predict the other’s behavior and resulting actions, all of which according to the theory is crucial in the development of any relationship. (Source)

The basic idea is that we humans need to reduce uncertainty in order to understand each other well-enough to get along. If we succeed at reducing uncertainty sufficiently, it then becomes possible to continue to develop relations.

The theory works pretty well in my view, but the problem I see with it is reducing initial uncertainty is much the same as feeling out semiotic codes, discovering which ones both (or all) parties subscribe to. As mentioned, this works well-enough for ordinary and formal relations, but what happens next? For the most part, most people then become trapped in the codes they seem to share.

What happens next can even be seen as sort of comical as people over the weeks or months continue to reduce uncertainty while confining themselves even more. Very often, if you try to go a bit deeper, you will be seen as breaking the code, disrupting convention, even threatening the group.

This is the region in which intimate relationships can be destroyed. Destruction happens because the parties involved are trapped in their codes and do not have the means to stand outside them and analyze them. Obviously, this leads to either reduced or turbulent speech.

I think the Uncertainty Reduction Theory might be extended and amended to include a stage two theory of uncertainty reduction. FIML practice would constitute a very reasonable stage two as FIML is designed to remove uncertainty and ambiguity between close partners.

Notice that FIML itself is not a semiotic code. It is a tool, a method, a procedure that allows partners to communicate without using any code at all save ones they consciously choose or create for themselves.

It seems clear to me that all established interpersonal codes are ultimately limiting and that people must find a way to analyze whatever codes they hold or have been inculcated with if they want to have truthful or authentic communication with their closest partners.

Most codes are public in the sense that they are roughly known by many people. But all of us have idiosyncratic ways of understanding these public codes and all of us also have private codes, idiosyncratic codes that are known only to us.

Sometimes our understanding of our idiosyncratic codes and/or idiosyncratic interpretations of public codes is not all that clear to us. One reason is we do not have good ways to access them. Another reason is a good many idiosyncrasies are sort of born in the dark. We muddle into them privately, inside our own minds with little or no opportunity to share them with others. Indeed, as seen above, to try to share them all too often leads to disruption of the shallow “certainty” that adherence to the shared code has provided.

What a mess. We need codes to learn, grow, and communicate with strangers. But we have to go beyond them if we want to learn, grow, and communicate with the people who are most important to us.

FIML is a sort of stage two Uncertainty Reduction Practice that allows partners to observe and analyze all of their codes—both public and private—in real-time.

Why is real-time analysis important? It is important because codes can only be richly and accurately analyzed when we see clearly how they are functioning in the moment. The “psychological morphemes” that appear only during brief moments of communication must be seen and analyzed if deep understanding is to be accomplished.

The Diamond Sutra section 6: The Rarity of True Belief

Section Six of the Diamond Sutra has been added. A link to the sutra can be found at the top of this page.

This section starts with Subhuti’s direct question: “World-honored One, can sentient beings, upon hearing these words, really be expected to believe them?”

In his answer, the Buddha emphasizes morality and goodness: “Even after I have been gone for five hundred years there will still be people who are moral and who cultivate goodness.”

Morality or “goodness” (without modern semiotic baggage) is the foundation of the “three trainings” which are essential to attaining enlightenment. The three trainings are morality, meditation, and wisdom.

Morality is the foundation because only when we are behaving morally and have a clear conscience can we meditate properly. Meditation can also be understood as concentration or mindfulness. An impure or immoral mind is confused and distracted by lies and harmful behaviors. The Buddha emphasizes this point when he says just below the line quoted above that “…if someone has so much as a single pure moment of belief concerning this teaching… they will be intimately known and seen by the Tathagata.”

Buddhist teachings often stress the importance of “belief,” “faith,” or simply having “confidence” in the Dharma. Belief alone or blind faith is not what is called for. But having enough belief or faith in the teachings to pursue them and continue learning from them is.

If you enroll in a school to learn some skill, it is important to believe that the school will teach you that skill and it is important to have faith in your teachers and confidence in the course material. It is also very helpful if you really want to learn that skill. It is in this sense, that “belief” and “faith” are stressed. In different times and places, this sort of faith or confidence will manifest in different ways. In some cultures, a scientific “coolness” will seem right. In others, reverence and warm acceptance will seem better.

“…if someone has so much as a single pure moment of belief concerning this teaching… they will be intimately known and seen by the Tathagata.”

To be “intimately known and seen by the Tathagata” is to awaken the Buddha mind in yourself, to sense your Buddha nature.

The Buddha then says: “And what is the reason that these sentient beings will attain so much infinite goodness? These sentient beings will not return to the laksana of self, the laksana of human beings, the laksana of sentient beings, the laksana of souls, the laksana of laws, or the laksana of non-laws.”

Laksana means “mental dharma” or “mental thing.” It is often translated as mark or characteristic. Readers of this site might appreciate that laksana are quite similar to semiotics. Semiotics are communicative signs that operate in the mind both internally (when alone) and externally (when communicating with others). If we do good deeds while dwelling on the semiotics of our selves, our actions are less pure than if we have no semiotics that reify the inauthentic “self.”

In section three of the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha said: “Subhuti, if a bodhisattva has laksana of self, laksana of human beings, laksana of sentient beings, or laksana of a soul, then he is not a bodhisattva.”

In this section, the Buddha says that the goodness attained by “a single pure moment of belief” will keep a sentient being “from returning to the laksana of self…” The purity and clarity of insight will be great enough to turn the sentient being away from confused and false semiotics toward enlightened Buddhahood.

The Buddha adds “laksana of laws, or the laksana of non-laws” to his statements on laksana. In this case, “laws” means the Buddha’s basic teachings on the five skandhas, the eighteen realms, the twelve nidanas, and so forth. “Non-laws” mean his teachings on emptiness.

To be clear as a bell, the Buddha repeats his point saying that a Bodhisattva “…must not cling to laws or non-laws, and this is why I have often said to you monks that even my teachings should be understood to be like a raft; if even the Dharma must be let go of, then how much more must everything else be let go of?”

We can see that the Buddha is not asking for belief alone or blind faith, but rather clear comprehension that the enlightened mind cannot be found among laksana/semiotics. At the same time, he also recognizes that laksana/semiotics are necessary at many stages of our development. This is what the raft metaphor means—you use a raft to cross a river, then you leave the raft and keep going. Similarly, you use laksana/semiotics/ideas/concepts/beliefs/confidence to get you further along and then you leave these “mental things” once they have served their purpose.

When two wrongs make a right

I say something that sounds bad to you. You query me and I tell you what I meant. You realize that what I meant was not bad at all but actually quite nice. That’s one wrong that you discovered. Then you tell me what you thought you had heard and I realize that the tone I used could all too easily be misinterpreted. That’s one wrong that I discovered. For a total of two wrongs. What we made right is how we understand each other. Since both of us learned something valuable about ourselves and each other, we have actually made more than one right. So two wrongs can make even more than one right.

This is one reason it is good to see how and why you are wrong when doing FIML. You help your partner and you help yourself, and going forward you make it easier to communicate with your partner clearly and with great detail. If we face our wrongs in the right way by using FIML practice, we will learn to take pleasure in being wrong because being wrong about communication hurts both partners, while fixing what was wrong helps both of them.

In the example above, if when you heard the tone of voice that sounded bad to you and you did not make a FIML query, you would have essentially accepted a mistaken interpretation of your partner. In a short time, you would probably forget the incident that led to your forming that mistaken interpretation but the emotions generated by it and the stimulation of deeper associations due to it would now be a thing in your mind. You would have started forming a mistaken impression of your partner. If you had made other prior mistakes about your partner, this one would be added to them. Even though none of your impressions had been correct, they still would snowball in you mind. In contrast, if you had made a FIML query as soon as you heard the tone that sounded bad, you would have seen your mistake and prevented it from snowballing. Thus, you should feel happy to learn you were wrong.

From your partner’s point of view, they too should feel happy because your query has stopped you from misunderstanding them while at the same time showing them that maybe that habitual tone of voice isn’t as good as they thought it was. Additionally, both of you will be able to trust each other even more because you now know you can do that. You can fix small mistakes in real-time as they arise. This skill will allow you to take on many new subjects that may have seemed too complex in the past. And that should make you happy too.

When FIML practice relieves us of mistakes, we can and should feel happy. Many wrongs can lead to many rights if we have the right technique.

What FIML is

FIML practice is mainly an act of the intellect.

A FIML discussion and resolution is largely guided by the intellect. Whatever emotions arise during a contretemps* can and should be observed, but not given in to.

Emotions are more chemical than thought and thus they last longer and are slower to subside. Knowing this helps us observe emotions unemotionally while they are happening.

The FIML meta-position is an intellectual position that provides a clear, mutually agreed upon vantage from which to observe and analyze a segment of communication that has gotten derailed. Both partners should participate in the analysis and the resolution that follows a complete analysis.

A FIML resolution should be accompanied by a satisfying feeling of relief or accomplishment because something important will have been figured out and agreed upon by both partners. Whatever was figured out, furthermore, will serve as an example for future resolutions. The more successful resolutions partners have, the easier it gets.

If FIML is correctly understood, it should be easy, even enjoyable, for partners to admit they were wrong or at fault or in some way the source of the contretemps. For example, if you discover that it was your tone of voice that disturbed your partner and that that is what led to a contretemps, you should feel good to see that. You might have spoken in irritation because you hadn’t slept well the night before or because you were worried about something. You may feel that you were just bantering, but now you know it didn’t sound that way. Or maybe it did—maybe your partner was simply mishearing you because they were tired or worried. The two of you ought to be able to figure all of this out if you understand how to do FIML and have made a prior agreement to do it.

Every time you figure it out and achieve a satisfying resolution, you will get better at doing FIML and much better at understanding each other. Most importantly, you will get better at communicating with each other. The inevitable glitches and bumps in the road that happen with great frequency to all human beings will be as nothing to you and your partner because you are secure in your ability to deal with them.

A word about the word intellectual. To me a real intellectual is someone who willingly uses their mind all the time. When we use our minds to analyze the process of communicating with another mind, we are using our intellects in an inestimably valuable way. In like manner, a real artist is someone who responds aesthetically and deeply to life’s details all the time. You don’t have to write a book to be a very fine intellectual and you don’t have to make sculptures to be a very fine artist. Sloppy art and sloppy intellectual behavior, to me, would be being bound by general semiotics or being lost in the emotions of interpersonal contretemps or cultural stupidity. In my mind, some of the worst intellectuals and artists that ever lived were Stalin and his henchmen who used their minds and feelings to destroy through mass murder and other means entire societies. I single them out because they were the first people in the modern world to go down that terrible “intellectual” path.

With practice, FIML partners should feel that there is not a cloud in the sky between them. And both should be confident in knowing that should a small cloud appear in either one of their minds that it will be dealt with immediately, or as soon as possible. Nothing to fester, nothing to fear, no lies, no paranoia, no unresolved contretemps. What could be better than that?

FIML practice teaches us to speak, listen, and think differently. It is a kind of higher language or a higher way to use language. FIML allows us to grasp and analyze details that cannot be grasped in any other way.


*A contretemps in FIML is a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of a communicative act, usually a small act lasting just a few seconds, though there can be larger contretemps. A communicative misinterpretation in one person’s mind clearly must involve the other person, so in this sense all contretemps are mutual. FIML practice is always done between two (or more) people, though FIML habits will definitely favorably affect the introspection and thoughts of a single person while alone.