Neurosis as a semiotic phobia

Human beings are semiotic entities. We largely live in and react emotionally to semiotics. Virtually everything we think, feel, and believe is built on a foundation of signs and symbols—semiotics.

A recent German study elegantly shows that people with arachnophobia see spiders more quickly than people who do not fear spiders.

The study can be found here: You See What You Fear: Spiders Gain Preferential Access to Conscious Perception in Spider-Phobic Patients. An article about the study is here: Phobias alter perception, German researchers say.

The authors of the study say that there probably is “an evolutionary advantage to preferentially process threatening stimuli, but these effects seem to have become dysfunctional in phobic patients.”

I would argue that “these effects” have also migrated into human semiotics and are similarly dysfunctional. That is, humans perceive some signs and symbols as more threatening than they are. For some of us these signs and symbols can seem so threatening we become “phobic” or neurotic about them.

For example, insecure people may become hypersensitive to signs of rejection. People who have been abused or tortured may perceive signs that seem ordinary to others as serious threats. If the person who tortures you also smiles, you will probably see human smiles as being dangerous when to others they indicate kindness.

Once a semiotic becomes associated with strong emotions, and this can happen in many ways, we will tend to see that semiotic as an emotionally charged sign from then on.

FIML practice is designed to interrupt our emotionally-charged responses to semiotics the moment those responses occur. By doing this repeatedly with the same sign, FIML practice can extirpates the neurotic response to that sign.

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Edit: Extirpating semiotic “phobias” or neuroses should be easier to do in most cases than extirpating phobias based on visual perceptions of things, such as the spiders discussed in the linked study. This is likely due to the more direct connection between emotional or limbic responses and the visual cortex. Complex semiotics are signs and symbols built on top of other signs and symbols, and thus their “architecture” is more fragile than direct visual perception and probably simpler to change in most cases. Human facial expressions probably fall somewhere between complex signs and direct visual perception. A good deal of what we call “psychology” are networks of complex semiotics. When a network becomes “neurotic” it is probably true that it contains erroneous interpretations of some or all of its semiotics. That said, a complex neurosis than involves many semiotic networks may be more difficult to extirpate than a straightforward phobia like arachnophobia.

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First posted 1/9/14

Psychology and mental illness

The essay The Myth of Mental Illness by Paul Lutus hits hard. I agree with Lutus that there is a great deal of deceit and self-deceit in psychology and a grotesque paucity of physical evidence, but it’s not just psychologists who are to blame—many school teachers are involved in the support or even initiation of dubious psychiatric diagnoses while general practitioners are responsible for the majority of psychiatric prescriptions.

I still believe there is a valuable role to be played by psychologists, if only because they have spent more time with troubled individuals than most of us. That said, readers can make up their own minds about Lutus’s essay, which I recommend.

What I want to do in this post is point out the ways that FIML practice does not have the sorts of problems Lutus describes. FIML is not (yet) supported by large studies because not enough people have done it and we don’t have the money to conduct the studies. Nonetheless, FIML practice is based on real data agreed upon by both partners and in this respect is evidence-based, though the kind of evidence used in FIML practice is not the same kind that is used in large studies of many people. (Please see A Theory of FIML for a rough idea of how FIML can be understood from a scientific point of view, and how it could be falsified.)

In my view, FIML is a growing tip of science. It is an idea coupled with a practice or technique. It works with real data that is objective in that both partners must agree on it. It is based primarily on words just spoken, thus limiting distracting generalizations and ambiguity. It allows for and relies upon comprehensive mutual understanding of what partners are actually saying. Normally, both FIML partners will experience a sense of relief after a FIML session because both have achieved a fuller, shared understanding of whatever was in question. Normally, both partners will also be capable of describing the event in question in ways that are essentially the same. Ultimately, partners will realize that many of their FIML discussions have been arising from on-going mistaken interpretations that they had always believed were true. Partners will also come to understand that simply using language to communicate—indeed, to communicate in any way at all—will lead eventually to serious misunderstandings and emotional suffering if their communication is never analyzed in a way similar to FIML practice. And all of the above will help partners understand how neuroses (mistaken interpretations) are formed and how they perdure. And this will gradually free them from neurosis and, it is hoped, most of what we now call “mental illness.”

Today, FIML is mostly an idea. That’s how science progresses. New ideas are explored, improved upon, or discarded. Though FIML has worked very well for me and my partner, I will happily discard the idea of it working for others if it can be shown to be ineffective.

On this site, we have frequently tied FIML practice to Buddhist practice because: 1) several core Buddhist ideas and practices greatly support FIML practice; 2) Buddhism is fundamentally a truth-seeking enterprise, somewhat like modern science but with greater emphasis on the experiences of the individual; and 3) we believe that in many ways FIML practice leads to the same liberative ends as Buddhist practice–freedom from delusion, unnecessary ambiguity, false ideas, emotional suffering.

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First posted 02/25/2012

Dalai Lama says he knew of sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers since 1990s, ‘nothing new’ in such allegations

The Hague: The Dalai Lama said Saturday that he has known about sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers since the 1990s and that such allegations are “nothing new”.

The Tibetan spiritual leader, revered by millions of Buddhists around the world, made the admission during a four-day visit to the Netherlands, where he met on Friday with victims of sexual abuse allegedly committed by Buddhist teachers. (Source)

See also:Buddhist group admits sexual abuse by teachers

Dalai Lama says ‘Europe belongs to Europeans

STOCKHOLM (AFP) –

The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, said Wednesday that “Europe belongs to the Europeans” and that refugees should return to their native countries to rebuild them.

Speaking at a conference in Sweden’s third-largest city of Malmo, home to a large immigrant population, the Dalai Lama — who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 — said Europe was “morally responsible” for helping “a refugee really facing danger against their life”.

“Receive them, help them, educate them… but ultimately they should develop their own country,” said the 83-year-old Tibetan who fled the capital Lhasa in fear of his life after China poured troops into the region to crush an uprising. (Source)

The Diamond Sutra and moral idealism

Most Buddhists know that a bodhisattva is someone who helps others through their understanding of “enlightened practice” or “enlightening practices.” The Buddha is called a bodhisattva when referring to the time before he became a Buddha.

A bodhisattva uses wisdom to do compassionate work or “generous” work, to use the terminology of the Diamond Sutra. Strictly speaking, “generosity” in the Diamond Sutra means sharing the Dharma with others, but in practice this concept can, of course, take many forms. For example, maybe just being nice to someone will help them more than an extensive Dharma talk.

It is possible when studying the Diamond Sutra to experience a kind of spiritual ecstasy or meditative ecstasy as one contemplates the fulsome purity of mind that attends the selfless generosity discussed in the sutra. At such times, you know without doubt that this is a higher state of mind, a better way to be; it feels like a genuine glimpse of Buddhahood, of the enlightened state of a Buddha.

I for one have no doubt that those states are higher and realer than the mundane states of mind we so often are consigned to. But it is important to understand that the Diamond Sutra is not only about being generous. It is also about being wise.

In all Buddhist traditions at all times, the highest virtue is always wisdom.

A well-known analogy is often used to explain this. If you want to save someone who is drowning you must know how to swim. If you can’t swim and you jump in the water, you will not only not help but probably lose your own life as well.

Generosity must be tempered with wisdom. The Diamond Sutra is not about moral idealism or the belief that “individual rights and responsibilities are universal, regardless of outcome.”

Buddhist teachings are all about good outcomes. The point of Buddhist practice is to become enlightened. When we glimpse the bliss of pure selfless generosity, we are glimpsing Buddhahood. But at that point we are still merely bodhisattvas, at best. In this world, absolutely pure, selfless behavior can get you robbed and killed. So you need some smarts, a sense of what really can be done to get real outcomes. Even terrible reprobates can be helped and can change, but don’t be foolish about your chances for success or the methods you use.

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This is a revised version of a post first posted on October 21, 2014

The danger of all identities

Recent revelations have exposed a secretive homosexual subculture within the Catholic Church.

(Cardinal McCarrick scandal inflames debate over gay priests)

Please completely ignore the homosexual part of that. Instead focus on the secret identity aspect of that.

Wherever there is group identity, there will be a subculture of people with dark personality traits who seek to and often succeed in taking it over or subverting it.

To be brief, in the Catholic Church there is a subculture of homosexuals. Due to Church teachings this subculture became secret. And due to its secrecy, it became stronger and either contains a dark sub-subculture or has been taken over by a dark sub-subculture.

Ignore again the homosexual part, because the same thing will happen in all groups. Wherever there is group identity, there will be a subculture of people with dark personality traits who seek to and often succeed in taking it over or subverting it.

This must be true in Buddhist groups. And it must be true in governments, news media, spy agencies, charities, ethnic groups, religious groups, ideological groups, schools and universities.

The older and larger the group, the more likely it is that a dark subculture is parasitizing it.

Group identity is the deluded human ego writ large. This dark tendency resides in all humans without exception.

The human spirit, soul, mind, mind-stream, bhavanga, pudgala—call it what you will—exists within a haze of moral ambiguity. It wallows in it, lives and breathes in it, forms its passions within it, and can barely escape being destroyed by it.

There’s no way around this. Whatever you identify with will almost certainly lead to you being morally compromised if not destroyed. And it will almost certainly lead to you furthering your identity group being morally compromised if not destroyed.

This process happens in groups and individuals. It must be constantly guarded against.

This is the reason we all need to do FIML practice. You cannot possibly be honest with yourself without the help of another person. There is no way around this fact.

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EDIT 9:00 AM: I wish that was all there is to it. A deeper level is even if you solve your problem and your group’s problem with dark tendencies, you will still have problems with other groups who have not solved their problems. Thus, all of us must overcome our own dark tendencies—both individual and group—and also guard against the dark tendencies of other groups and individuals.

Take the Church as an example. I am sure most priests are not park of the dark group of sexual predators. But I am also sure that they did not stop that dark group from acting on its dark tendencies, harming thousands of children and undermining the Church.

Take American universities as another example. In light of the above, isn’t it clear that dark groups of left-wing ideologues have taken them over almost completely? How else did we come to have higher education crippled by slavish adherence to a single point of view? Notice homosexuality has nothing to do with this. It is an ideological darkness instead.

Is consciousness continuous or discrete?

Is consciousness a continuous flow of awareness without intervals or is it something that emerges continually at discrete points in a cascade of microbits?

The Buddhist answer has always been the latter.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation of perception and consciousness says that there are four discrete steps that are the basis of consciousness.

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. (The five skandhas and modern science)

The first four skandhas are normally unconscious. Buddhist mindfulness and meditation training are importantly designed to help us become conscious of each of the five skandhas as they actually function in real-time.

A study from 2014—Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces—supports the five skandha explanation. From that study:

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. (emphasis added)

A few days ago, a new model of how consciousness arises was proposed. This model is being called a “two-stage” model, but it is based on research and conclusions derived from that research that support the Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness.

The study abstract:

We experience the world as a seamless stream of percepts. However, intriguing illusions and recent experiments suggest that the world is not continuously translated into conscious perception. Instead, perception seems to operate in a discrete manner, just like movies appear continuous although they consist of discrete images. To explain how the temporal resolution of human vision can be fast compared to sluggish conscious perception, we propose a novel conceptual framework in which features of objects, such as their color, are quasi-continuously and unconsciously analyzed with high temporal resolution. Like other features, temporal features, such as duration, are coded as quantitative labels. When unconscious processing is “completed,” all features are simultaneously rendered conscious at discrete moments in time, sometimes even hundreds of milliseconds after stimuli were presented. (Time Slices: What Is the Duration of a Percept?) (emphasis added)

I, of course, completely support science going where the evidence leads and am not trying to shoehorn these findings into a Buddhist package. Nonetheless, that does sound a lot like a slimmed-down version of the five skandhas. Considering these and other recent findings in a Buddhist light may help science resolve more clearly what is actually happening in the brain/mind.

As for form-sensation-perception-activity-consciousness, you might suddenly think of your mother, or the history of China, or the spider that just climbed onto your shoulder.

In Buddhist terms, initially, each of those items is a form which leads to a sensation which leads to perception which leads to activity which leads to consciousness.

Obviously, the form of a spider on your shoulder differs from the form of the history of China. Yet both forms can be understood to produce positive, negative, or neutral sensations, after which we begin to perceive the form and then react to it with activity (either mental or physical or both) before becoming fully conscious of it.

In the case of the spider, the first four skandhas may happen so quickly, we will have reacted (activity) to it (the spider) before being conscious of what we are doing. The skandha of activity is deeply physical in this case, though once consciousness of the event arises our sense of what the first four skandhas were and are will change.

If we slapped the spider and think we killed it, our eyes will monitor it for movement. If it moves and we are sensitive in that way, we might shudder again and relive the minor panic that just occurred.

If we are sorry that we reacted without thinking and notice the spider is moving, we might feel relief that it is alive or sadness that it has been wounded.

In all cases, our consciousness of the original event, will constellate around the spider through monitoring it, our own reactions, and whatever else arises. Maybe our sudden movements brought someone else into the room.

The constellation of skandhas and angles of awareness can become very complex, but the skandhas will still operate in unique and/or feedback loops that can often be analyzed.

The word skandha means “aggregate” or “heap” indicating that the linear first-fifth explanation of how they operate is greatly simplified.

The above explanation of the spider can also be applied to the form skandhas of the history of China or your mother when they suddenly arise in your mind, or anything else.

We can also perceive the skandhas when our minds bring in new information from memory or wander. As we read, for example, it is normal for other forms to enter our minds from our memories. Some of these forms will enhance our reading and some of them will cause our minds to wander.

Either way, our consciousness is always slightly jumpy because it emerges continually at discrete points in a cascade of microbits, be they called skandhas or something else.

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Edit: The first four skandhas can be stilled in meditation.

See also: How the brain produces consciousness in ‘time slices’

First posted April 16, 2016