Today’s public negotiation over the “meaning” of the Confederate flag is a good example of how the ambiguous commons works in public life.

Obama weighing in with his single definition of the flag (it’s “racist”) illustrates how power influences how definitions are made on the ambiguous commons.

TV, with the power of station owners to control the message, works on the ambiguous commons sort of in the same way as Obama in the above example. Of course, TV as a medium is more complex and carries many more messages, but the comparison is still valid because TV promotes some messages while ignoring or downplaying others.

Here are some good photos on the power of TV: Idiot Box. Notice the kids’ eyes, which indicate passive trance states that are accepting information without questioning it.

In some ways one can say that TV is a bad medium because there is far more airtime than there are quality shows to fill it. The other reason one can call it bad—even though the medium itself cannot have any intentions—is it can easily be controlled by powerful people and groups that do have intentions.

The public ambiguous commons is greatly controlled by presidents and other talking heads on TV. If you watch Jon Stewart, chances are you agree with almost everything he says even when the subject is a new one that you have given no thought to.

If the general idea of a public ambiguous commons makes sense, and if it is understood how people (and presidents) negotiate “meaning” on the ambiguous commons, then I hope it will also be clear that we humans as individuals and in small groups are negotiating shared meanings all the time.

Negotiating meaning (by arguing, cajoling, ignoring, using emotional displays or reason, etc.) is one of the main things we humans do when we communicate. It is for this reason that very stable social groups can be so boring. No one wants to rock the boat by saying anything that makes anything seem more ambiguous or confusing.

It is also for this reason that narcissists and abusers insist on their interpretations, their meanings, over anyone else’s. Pretty much wherever you find an individual or group that will brook no dissent and/or that gets angry when there is dissent or even the simple appearance of a different idea, you can be all but certain you are dealing with a narcissistic bully trying to maintain (or gain) control of the ambiguous commons.

The Confederate flag

The various arguments and passions today concerning the Confederate flag are good examples of how emotionally-charged semiotics (the signs and symbols of communication) can be.

Flags are often used as examples of how simple signs can arouse strong feeling. The arguments about the Confederate flag are arguments about how to define a symbol, which of its many possible meanings is the one.

A more important point to be made here is that each of us has a myriad of semiotic symbols in our minds and emotions can be touched off by any of them at any time.

If you don’t know ho to communicate about these kinds of explosive symbols/signs—many of which are idiosyncratic—you will have problems, some of which will get defined as “psychological” when they are not.

It is beneficial for Buddhists (and others) to contemplate the emptiness of semiotics like the Confederate flag and then apply this understanding to how we think, perceive, feel, and communicate about other signs.

Edit: Concerning the flag, notice that the community (whichever one) is forced to come to some sort of “decision” about the flag’s meaning. This is so because the flag has to mean something since it is a prominent public sign/symbol. The “community” can’t avoid ascribing some meaning to it. Notice also that that is what Obama and many others have been doing, ascribing meaning to the flag. This is how elites (and the media that highlights or ignores them) influence culture, by influencing how we react to symbols and what those symbols are and/or mean. Disputes over semiotic meaning are very common in both the public and private spheres.

Edit 2: Just because the community is forced to give the flag meaning doesn’t mean it will give it the right meaning. And it also doesn’t mean that any of the widely available meanings are right.

Discussion of rebirth with Jim Tucker

This interview is quite good and well worth reading no matter what your perspective. (link to interview)

Tucker’s “main research interests are children who claim to remember previous lives, and natal and prenatal memories.” He is based at the University of Virginia.

I myself have past-life memories and understand that experiences like that can be difficult and/or frustrating to talk about with others, a point made in the linked interview.

In my view, it is impossible for a science which requires strict reproducibility to deal fully with memories of this type, which are specific to individuals and which obviously cannot be reproduced any more than any memory specific to an individual and contingent on them can be reproduced. Science can only reproduce phenomena that everyone can see.

I am fully cognizant of the materialist scientific paradigm and work. live, and reason within in it a great deal. At the same time, I cannot honestly tell myself that my own life experiences and memories, none of which are reproducible, have no value.

My guess is that redefining “materialism” to mean “physicalism,” a point not made in the interview, can help people who feel deeply rooted in the scientific world-view entertain other possibilities.

In a nutshell, physicalism means simply “obeying the laws of physics.” Since we can never be sure that we know all of the laws of physics and do not today even understand how the laws we do know hold together, physicalism can work as a sort of mind-opener for materialists, an avenue of unknowns that includes more of the deep realities of sentient existence without always consigning them to fantasy or superstition.

Repost: The five skandhas and modern science

A recent study on emotional response—Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces—indicates that the Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness has it right.

From the study’s abstract:

The findings demonstrate that the amygdala can be influenced by even high-level facial information before that information is consciously perceived, suggesting that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.

Note that all important phrase “…before that information is consciously perceived.”

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness.

Advanced training in meditation and mindfulness is probably necessary for most people to be able to observe the five skandhas individually, as they are actually “firing,” but it can be done. A good deal of Buddhist practice is based on being able to do that.

Though all brain imaging studies must be taken as provisional since the technology is not completely reliable, they still are providing us with some very interesting information worth considering.

The amygdala study cited above seems to confirm that people form significant emotional reactions to faces without being conscious of their reactions at all. In Buddhist terms, their reactions are (or take place at) the second skandha—sensation.

The skandha of sensation is defined as a reaction to a form that is either positive, negative, or neutral. That is, we either like, dislike, or don’t care about the form. In the amygdala study the form is the face that is flashed very briefly on a screen. The face appears so briefly, for just a few milliseconds, that it is not possible to actually “see” or be aware of having “seen” it.

I think it is fair to extrapolate from this study that we humans are forming sensations all the time without being aware of what we are doing. As the authors of the study say, the study “[suggests] that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.”

“…processing of social cues in the absence of awareness” is pretty good description of what the Buddha called delusion, especially if we realize that the delusions we “process” from forms arising outside of us are entwined with and not very different from delusions we process from forms arising within us.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation, thus, provides a way to observe and analyze our minds to prevent our becoming deluded by the tug of sensations that happen in the “absence of awareness.”

A few days ago, I reposted an essay that touches on this subject from a different angle and a different study: we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots.

Here is a pretty good article on the study cited above: Friend Or Foe? Even When Faces Are Not Clearly Visible, Your Brain Unconsciously Makes Judgments.

Micro, meso, and macro FIML

Micro FIML practice is basic to all FIML practice.

(A description of micro FIML can be found here: How to do FIML.)

Basic or micro FIML provides a very sturdy foundation for many other kinds of interpersonal discussions. This is so because basic FIML makes partners confident that they can say what they think without fearing that their partner will significantly misunderstand them.

Why is that? The reason is if your partner interprets what you have said in a strong—and especially a negative—way, they will ask you about it. Once they have asked you, you can clarify what you meant, change it, expand on it, explain it, or do anything else you want with it as long as you are being honest.

Basic FIML covers all new clouds that appear on the horizon. If your partner speaks or communicates in a way that causes a small cloud to appear on your horizon and you have time, bring it up immediately using the basic FIML technique linked above. If you don’t have time to bring it up immediately, do it later when you do have time if the cloud is still there. Even if the cloud is gone, it can still be interesting to bring it up later because you can discuss the incident and learn more about yourselves from that. Very small incidents are often the most interesting because data points are clear and strong emotions are not likely to be aroused.

No FIML partner should ever carry around a shadow of misgiving or negativity about their partner without saying something about it. This is where meso and macro levels of FIML come into play.

Meso and macro FIML come into play when you discover that even though you have been doing basic FIML perfectly and dealt with every cloud that appeared on your horizon, still there is a shadow or haze developing in your mind.

You can’t remember when it started or how it started, but you know it is there.

If you have been doing basic FIML and are reasonably skilled in it, you should be able to bring up the matter of a gathering haze in your mind and clear it with your partner. Maybe you partner is spending too much time away from you or too close to you. Maybe you are starting to feel weird about something they keep saying. No single incident of their saying whatever it is has bothered you enough to mention it, but they keep saying it and that is getting to you. Once you notice anything like that, just bring it up and discuss it at a meso level while relying on basic micro FIML practice to steer you toward a good resolution that works for both of you.

Another example of a meso discussion might be something like: you are a bit tired, your partner says something and you respond in what seems a pleasant way to you and they respond to that in a way that seems sharp or restrictive to you. Since you are tired, you don’t do basic FIML at the right moment but instead respond sharply to what you had perceived as their sharpness.

If your partner questions you on that and/or if you notice it yourself, just do a meso FIML discussion that brings in all of the factors you are aware of. Your habit of doing basic FIML will make it much easier to have conversations on meso or macro levels than if you had never done basic FIML at all.

A macro level FIML discussion might entail a growing shift in your understanding of any macro subject—science, religion, philosophy, politics, etc.

As with meso discussions, macro discussions will be much easier and more enjoyable if partners know how to do basic FIML.

Basic FIML solves most communication problems by helping partners be honest with each other in ways that are helpful and productive without being phony. Basic FIML also helps partners sail past the many minor snags that can occur in conversations, such as quibbling over word choices, minor details, tone of voice, gestures, and so on.

This happens because basic FIML will already have provided many examples of small snags and how to overcome them. It does take some practice to get to this point, but it is not much harder than learning to sew or make pizza. Requires some work and there are better and worse results, but once you get going the benefits should be clear enough to keep you going.

In my view, FIML will not work for partners only if a misinterpretation is not addressed, not honestly addressed, or not substantially addressed from the micro level on up. If you always jump in at meso and macro levels, you will almost certainly cause more problems than you will solve.


See also: Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding.

Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya (On Right Speech)

….[1] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[2] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[3] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[4] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[5] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[6] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.”


translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Metacognition and real-time communication

Metacognition means “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes,” or “cognition about cognition,” or “being able to think about how you think.”

To me, metacognition is a premier human ability. How can it not be a good thing to be aware of how you are aware and how you think and respond to what is around you?

In more detail:

The term “metacognition” is most often associated with John Flavell, (1979). According to Flavell (1979, 1987), metacognition consists of both metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive experiences or regulation. Metacognitive knowledge refers to acquired knowledge about cognitive processes, knowledge that can be used to control cognitive processes. Flavell further divides metacognitive knowledge into three categories: knowledge of person variables, task variables and strategy variables. (Source)

Most people do metacognition and are aware of doing it. We do it when we plan, make decisions, decide how to get from one place to another, how to relate to one person differently from another, and so on.

Where we don’t do metacognition is in real-time communication in real life, where it matters most. This is not because we are not able to do it. It is because very few of us have the right technique, Flavell’s “acquired knowledge,” that allows us to do it.

If we have the right technique, we will be able to gain a great deal of knowledge about real-time cognitive process while also learning how to control them.

FIML practice is a metacognitive practice based on, to quote the above source, “acquired knowledge about cognitive processes… that can be used to control cognitive processes.”

In the case of FIML, the “acquired knowledge” is the FIML technique which allows us to gain conscious “control over cognitive processes” of real-time interpersonal communication.

FIML is different from other analytical communication techniques in that FIML provides a method to gain control over very short or small units of communication in real-time. This is important as it is these very short real-time units that are most often ignored or not dealt with in most analyses of human communication.

If you know how to catch small mistakes, they become sources of insight and humor. If you don’t know how to catch them, they often snowball into destructive misunderstandings.

FIML is fairly easy to do if you understand the importance of correcting the minor misinterpretations that inevitably arise between people when they speak and communicate. By using the FIML metacognitive method, partners gain control over the most elusive kinds of interpersonal error which all too often lead to serious interpersonal discord.

FIML can and does do more than catch small mistakes, but first things first. If you cannot correct small errors in real-time communication, you are not doing anything even resembling thorough metacognitive communication.


  • Most of what we think of as the “self” are limited constructs that allow the individual to feel connected to, fulfilled by the sociology and politics of whatever culture they are in.
  • Personality, social roles, self-image, goals, needs, greed and so forth are some of the main constructs that do this.
  • Another way to say this is the self is cut from the same cloth as the sociology the individual identifies with.
  • When people do not do FIML-type micro-analyses of their speech and communication, they are at the mercy of meso and macro sociological constructs.
  • Just a few results of the above are group-think, false confessions, the need to think one thing, believe one story, have one self, one personality, have single explanations where only complex explanations will actually explain anything.
  • More of these are willful distortions of history, fantasies about the past, about other people or peoples, simple heuristics which become psychopathic in many of their applications.
  • A false-confession is a particular type of resonance between an individual and the sociology surrounding them. It is a kind of hypnosis that achieves verbal stasis with others at the expense of the truth, which is much messier and far more difficult to explain. The confessor, I am sure, experiences a sort of relief as the truth as they really know it recedes into the background.
  • We all accept social falsity frequently. Society is based on our doing that.
  • A false confession, of which there are many and many kinds, is just a particularly strong version of social falsity.
  • Reflexively and quickly agreeing wholeheartedly with your doctor’s brief diagnosis of something is also an example of a sort of false confession or false agreement with something based on lack of thinking for yourself.
  • If we look at totalitarian societies, it is easy to see all of the above in action. The “self” of a North Korean today or a Bolshevik ninety years ago are obvious examples of individuals being subsumed within a matrix of social absurdity and madness.
  • Totalitarian thinking still appeals to many people because it provides security for the ill-constructed “self.”
  • Totalitarian thinking is characterized by simple heuristics which tend toward psychopathy in many applications. It is intolerant of discussion or debate and ostracizes (or kills) individuals who hold opposing views.
  • “Political correctness” is a (usually) mild form of totalitarianism, though it can still be dangerous.

Creation of meaning and human behavior

Humans create meaning because they have to.

Virtually all humans need meaning and a sense that their minds are organized or unified by meaning. The macro-meanings of religion, science, and politics are obvious examples of the sorts of “organized” or “unified” meaning people want and need.

Gangs are another type of organized meaning that unify the minds of their members.

An exceptionally cruel example of the importance of meaning can be seen in the recent story of a young man who was killed for wearing red shoes—gang colors—in the wrong neighborhood (Teen shot after refusing to give up shoes).

This story illustrates how small a bit of meaning can be and yet still elicit violent reactions.

Most people don’t do stuff like that but most people can be and often are as petty if not as violent. In so-called “polite” society a poorly expressed opinion or a deviant political stance can lead to ostracism.

People go nuts over tiny misunderstandings because practically anything can threaten their sense of meaningful unity or organization. In this vein, notice how many people are attracted to institutions that define them. Define their beliefs, values, thoughts, vocabularies, semiotics, even their hairdos and clothes.

In FIML practice, partners also often deal with small bits of meaning. But rather than fight over them or accept them as definitions of anything, partners analyze them and work to understand how those bits of meaning are functioning, what they are doing. A FIML analysis is a process that works toward shared understanding rather than a static—even a programmed—response that is often instinctual, if not violent.

If you take meaning for granted—your uniform, candidate, religion, ethnicity—you will be owned and used by it or by the people who created it, often before you were born. In contrast, if you analyze meaning you will own it and be able to use it freely and as you choose.

While riding in the car, I spoke with my partner about the ideas expressed above. She thought for a moment and said, “You know how if a parasite kills its host quickly it is a sign that it is a recently evolved parasite?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, isn’t what you’re saying similar? Those hunks of cultural meaning have been around for centuries. They are like successful parasites that condition the behaviors of millions of people at a time.”

“Nice,” I said.

“FIML is recent and it may not survive because it is hard to pass on to others. It’s not a parasite, though. It frees us from the parasitism of convention. It doesn’t allow us to get locked in.”

Stress voice

Humans are semiotic animals that respond to human signals as primary percepta.

Some obvious examples are sex in advertising, pictures of hamburgers, people enjoying a natural view from a balcony in a hotel brochure. Each of these relies on an “instinct”—sex, hunger, an animal’s response to nature—while at the same time signaling a complex human contribution to the basic signal.

Another type of human signal that arouses instinct is tone of voice. A good example of this is the “stress” or “alarm” voice that is used by most if not all mammals and birds.

The basic instinctive stress or alarm voice is a shriek. If words are used, the shrieking tone will be accompanied by rapidly spoken words—“stop! stop! stop!” or “Watch out! it’s falling” or “get down! get down!” etc.

In basic situations involving real danger, the alarm voice is very important. We definitely want to have both the voice and the sudden energized response it draws from us.

In many situations, though, the stress voice can cause problems when it arises due to simple miscommunication. For example, I say or do something different from what you asked or implied and it causes you—virtually involuntarily—to use an alarmed tone that involves a bit of a shriek and rapid words.

For example, you asked me to cut some mushrooms for a broth we are making. What you meant is you want the mushrooms to go into the clear broth after it has been made but I toss them into the pot with the chicken bones and vegetable scraps that will be strained and thrown away.

When you first see what I have done, you experience slight confusion, even cognitive dissonance, and say in an alarmed voice, “What are you doing with the mushrooms?”

In turn, I respond directly to your stress voice and to the now evident miscommunication with my own confusion and stress voice, “I thought you wanted them in the broth!”

If we are friends, this minor contretemps will probably be easily overcome and we may even laugh about it. If we have had many unresolved contretemps of this type, however, one or both of us may escalate the problem by being accusatory or even abusive.

Even though the mushroom contretemps is very simple and insignificant, it can still be dangerous even between good friends because this type of contretemps can quickly get blown out of proportion due to the primal, instinctive quality of the stress voice.

Similar problem situations might be miscommunicated directions while driving or working, messed up meeting times, or getting the wrong thing from the store.

These problems are generally easy to resolve, though they may still generate discord or stress both because a confusing miscommunication happened and also because the stress or alarm voice just is that way; it causes stress or alarm in and of itself.

If you can see and deal with concrete situations such as the ones described above, imagine how similar situations may arise in less concrete forms and how they can be even more dangerous and lead to even more serious problems.

Miscommunicated emotional, sexual, psychological, or intellectual signals can also give rise to primal stress or alarm tones and, in turn, generate further stress and alarm. Contretemps like these can be much harder to pinpoint, analyze, and understand than simpler ones involving concrete communication about mushrooms or directions.

In FIML practice, if partners can mutually understand a few concrete contretemps and how and why they generate stress and confusion and use these forms as basic paradigms for more complex contretemps, they will go a long way toward removing stress and confusion that is entirely blameless, unconscious, unmotivated, and unintended by either of them.