A few days ago, I posted the essay, How semiotics can help us understand ourselves.
Today I want to discuss how you can grasp the semiotics that form the basis of your consciousness.
I am sure you already understand a good deal about yourself, but my guess is your understanding is probably in the form of a group of abstractions, such as—“my personality is thus-and-so”; “since I had this sort of childhood/education/etc., I am now outgoing/fearful/frugal/etc.”; “I believe in personal responsibility/behavior/etc.”; “my mom was a religious nut so I am an atheist, etc.”
In the post cited above, we used the terms signaling system and semiotics more or less interchangeably. A signaling system emphasizes what the message is and how it is sent, while semiotics emphasizes how the message is interpreted.
If we think of our minds as being signaling systems that are constantly referring to whatever semiotics we interpret as “true” or “real,” we can get a very good idea of how they function in the moment by observing what they are referring to in “the moment” (1-10 seconds, or so). By observing our minds closely, we can learn what semiotics cause us to have emotional responses or to interpret things in the ways we do. We can see how our mental/emotional signaling system builds up within us the appearance of a self with a biography, a personality, needs, fears, desires, goals, and so on.
If, for example, at some point in your life you learned and accepted as real a semiotic that you are stupid, you can spend hours, even decades, analyzing your feelings without getting any results. But if you can actually watch your mind as it signals to itself the semiotic “I am stupid,” and if you can see while that is happening that the signal is a mistake, then your mind will tend to stop sending you that signal.
If you can repeat that experience a few times—that is, catch that same mistake a few times—your mind will almost certainly stop wasting its resources thinking you are stupid. It will do this almost effortlessly because the mind is efficient and won’t waste time doing something it knows is a mistake.
So how do you do that, how do you catch the mistakes? You probably have already tried to catch them through introspection, reading, or discussing them with friends with less than satisfying results.
And what’s even harder to do is catch mistakes that you are not even aware of. How do you catch them?
I don’t think you can do it all by yourself. And I don’t think you can make satisfying progress by discussing these matters even with very wise friends. You can’t do it yourself because you can’t see yourself, and you can’t do it through long discussions because the signalling system works too quickly for that.
If you don’t cut in quickly and observe what it is doing, you won’t be able to change it easily.
Here is a way to look at that. Have you ever had a clock or mirror on the wall that was removed; maybe the mirror fell or the clock broke. At some point, the object that you had been used to seeing for years was gone. For some time after that, you probably turned unconsciously more than a few times to look at the now absent mirror or clock. That gives a strange feeling because at moments like that we see how deeply unconscious signs (the clock or mirror) affect our sense of who we are.
After a while we get used to the bare wall, but the lesson in how deeply signs operate within us should be clear. The other lesson of how we can indeed change our reference or expectation from a wall with a clock or mirror to a wall without either should also be clear.
At first, the mind is surprised, but after a while, it accepts that there is no clock on the wall with little fuss.
When two people do FIML (note: this link will lead to recent posts and reposts, including this one, but just scroll down a bit for more) practice, they help each other remove broken clocks and mirrors from the walls of their minds. FIML strongly emphasizes catching the signal and the semiotic it is referring to as quickly as you can. If partners can isolate their signals quickly, they will find that they are dealing with very small and discrete signs that very, very often are not true.
Normal people live in vague worlds where they grope toward each other like ghosts in the fog. How can we understand each other or ourselves if we do not pay attention to the small signals that are, arguably, the most important units of interpersonal communication?
And how can you pay attention to them if you don’t catch them quickly in the moment? If you try to understand yourself through long explanations and stories, you will only be understanding the underlying semiotic library that your moment-by-moment signals are referring to. If you catch those small signals as they happen in the moment, though, you will come to understand how and why that library is being accessed and how that affects you.
When your partner shows you that one of your signals was wrong and that it was referring to a part of the library that had no proper bearing on that moment, and when they show you that again, and again, that particular signal will stop firing. And there is a very good chance your library will change as well. It will change you deeply to see that.