Meaning and identity

  • Meaning can be defined as two or more signalling systems connecting. Connecting means “sending and receiving, receiving and sending.”
  • To visualize this, think of Newton’s every action produces an opposite and equal reaction; thus sending (action) produces receiving (reaction), which in turn sends a message back. For example, a photon hits a hydrogen atom; the photon “sends” while the atom “receives”; by receiving, it also sends a message back and out; it affects the photon and more.
  • Space is the foundation of the plethora of signalling systems. Time is the foundation of their activity and extent.
  • Meaning is the most basic word in language.
  • When you look at it “psychologically,” it’s not what the sign is but what the meaning is. Thus, meaning is a deep basis of semiotics.
  • In this context, it makes sense to say that time and space are the sine qua non of signalling systems. This “defines” time and space in terms of signalling systems.
  • Identity depends on meaning as defined above.
  • Our identities are (somewhat) complex nexuses of meaning/signaling that “embody” our comprehension of the semiotics of our cultures and experiences. They lie at the center of how we understand ourselves. Identity signalling occurs internally as well as externally.
  • In non-FIML social intercourse it is normal for people to assert/display the props/symbols of their identities, as they understand them.
  • People who do FIML also need identities, but they do not need the social props that help non-FIML people define each other.
  • You really do not want to be defined by props and symbols. It’s a static role that leads away from authentic being.
  • People do not truly belong to a culture. Rather they maintain the illusion that they belong to a culture. This is clear when we think and analyze identity in terms semiotics, which here means “the science of communicable meaning.”
  • Having a weak or confused identity can be a very good thing as this may prompt you to learn how identities are made and maintained.
  • No Buddhist should want an identity defined by props and symbols.
  • Buddhism is about authentic being, the “thusness” of being, the experiential existential being that you really are, the one that occurs before there are definitions, props, and symbols.
  • This being can be hard to see because humans are semiotic entities; that is, we are entities that seek, create, and communicate meaning. This causes us to look within semiotics for the definition of our authentic being, a place where it can never be found. You have to look outside of semiotics.
  • But you can’t look outside semiotics unless you know how to look inside. You have to fully understand how the “language” of your semiotics works to be able to step outside of it.
  • Your semiotics is your unique take on the semiotics of your culture(s) and experiences.
  • You cannot fully explore your semiotics, your identity, your nexus of individual meaning alone because there is no way you can check your work. You cannot see yourself.
  • Each of us is a social, interactive, communicative being. You can only fully explore your unique semiotics/identity with a partner who wants to do the same.
  • Two people working together are able to stop the flow of conversation to analyze the semiotics of how they are hearing and speaking. One person working alone is only guessing.
  • Find a partner and do FIML. You will learn a lot from it.
  • Do not expect FIML to give you new symbols or props or tell you how to be. FIML is only a procedure. It is empty, almost devoid of its own content. It is a process that will help you see and recreate your identity.
  • Do not expect your FIML teacher to be an example for you. Do not expect your teacher to be impressive or to project signs and symbols at you. Do not expect to follow your teacher.
  • Just learn how to do FIML from them.

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first posted August 22, 2013

Indeterminacy of translation and FIML

I betray my poor education by admitting that I had never heard of W. V. Quine’s “indeterminacy of translation” until last week. My ignorance is especially egregious as I have worked as a professional translator for many years.

Maybe I had heard about it but had forgotten. I am being self-reflective because FIML practice is deeply, fundamentally concerned with the “indeterminacy” of translating one person’s thoughts into another person’s head.

Quine’s thesis is not just about translating from one language to another, though there is that. It is much more about the fundamental impossibility of determining what anything means well enough to “translate” it into another context, a next sentence, into another person’s mind, or even “translating” your own speech from the past into the context of your mind today.

If I had known about Quine, I probably never would have thought of FIML because his ideas and the slews of papers written on “indeterminacy of translation” surely would have made me believe that the subject had been worked through.

As it was, I have plodded along in a delightful state of ignorance and, due to that, maybe added something practical to the subject.

In the first place, I wholeheartedly believe that speech is filled with indeterminacy, which I have generally called ambiguity or uncertainty. In the second place, I have confined my FIML-related investigations mainly to interpersonal speech between partners who care about each other. I see no solution to the more general problem of indeterminacy within groups, subcultures, or linguistic communities. Until brain scans get much better, large groups will be forced to resort to hierarchical “determinacy” to exist or function at all.

For individuals, though, there is much we can do. FIML practice does not remove all “indeterminacy.” Rather, it removes much more than most people are accustomed to. My guess is FIML communication provides a level of detail and resolution that is an order of magnitude better than non-FIML.

FIML does not fix everything—and philosophical or “artistic” differences between partners are still possible—but it does fix a great deal. By clearing up interpersonal micro-indeterminacy again and again, FIML practice frees partners from the inevitable macro-problems that ambiguity causes.

Moreover, this freedom, in turn, frees partners from a great deal of subconscious adhesion to the hierarchical “determinacy” of whichever culture they are part of. Rather than trapping themselves in a state of helpless acceptance of predefined hierarchical “meaning,” FIML partners have the capacity to sort through existential semiotics and make of them what they will with far less “indeterminacy,” or ambiguity, than had been possible without FIML practice.

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This essay was first posted 12/07/2014

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.

__________________

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.

_________________

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

Notes

  • All motivation and action is based on an assessment of “reality”.
  • Public assessments include the sciences, mainstream psychologies and religions, various traditions such as the arts, sports, work, etc. The general elements of these assessment are agreed on by many people. This makes them sort of satisfying within a limited sphere of thought. They can hold a good deal of psychological water, but not all of it.
  • Private assessments are usually neurotic (mistaken) because even if shared with others, they tend to contain many unfounded assumptions. These assumptions often appear true to the individual but don’t hold up well if exposed to other views or better evidence.
  • Not only do neither public nor private assessments of reality as described above completely satisfy, but even when combined, they fail to fully satisfy. This is because the problem of interpersonal ambiguity cannot be answered in those ways.
  • FIML practice provides a means for partners to reach a reasonable assessment of reality that includes both wholesome public and wholesome private components. The private components are made wholesome through FIML practice because partners actually have the means to achieve satisfying mutual understanding, to remove ambiguity.
  • FIML partners should feel that they can say what they want to each other. They should also feel that they can refrain from saying things they don’t want to say.
  • Most people tend to see other people as being on some sort of scale–they might be seen as “normal” or “crazy”, “responsible” or “irresponsible”, “reliable” or “unreliable”, etc.
  • These scales are always a mixture of public and private components as described above.
  • FIML partners, in contrast, need only ask how is the non-FIML person adapting to ambiguity? What standards have they chosen or forced on themselves? What standards do they use to assess “reality”?
  • Their standards will always be skewed one way or the other. To simplify, they will either be fairly strict adherents to a public code or fairly eccentric adherents to private neuroses, or most commonly, a mixture of these two.
  • Even Buddhist practice can fall victim to this problem. Insofar as Buddhist practice is nothing more than an imported public standard, it cannot satisfy for long. Buddhist practice plus FIML will satisfy because FIML allows partners to establish mutual interpersonal standards that both of them can understand and agree upon completely. These standards are not the imported standards of someone else, but self-generated, mutually generated standards created by the partners themselves.
  • If you don’t fill the void of interpersonal ambiguity, you will have to compensate by compartmentalizing your life, importing standards from the public sphere, or generating your own neuroses (mistaken interpretations). This point may seem obvious or trivial, but it is huge. Emotional suffering, delusion, the First Noble Truth all stem from this problem.

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This essay was first posted May 7, 2012

 

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.

This essay was first posted August 6, 2012

What is FIML?

At its most basic FIML is a way to ask your partner what they are or were just thinking, feeling, perceiving, or meaning when they said or did something that communicated something to you. And then it is a way to get a good answer from them, an answer that completely satisfies you both.

FIML works with data that is as immediate as possible. It works with our “working memories,” the stuff we actually have in our minds as we speak and listen  (not the stuff we can call up quickly from memory but that is not actually there during the speech event.)

People often speak more vaguely than they listen. Listening often is more precise in its details than what the speaker was saying. Listening focuses on less of the discourse, sometimes more clearly.

The act of speaking takes up space in working memory and thus can have an atmospheric feel; during speaking the working memory is robustly occupied with putting out words. Listening can be more sensitive, having sharp moments disturbed by confusion. An unknown group of people coming up an apartment stairwell is an example of a typical act of listening.