The Five Skandhas

The Buddha’s explanation of the five skandhas is intended to help us understand the emptiness of the self. It is a short explanation aimed at his most intelligent students.

The Sanskrit word skandha means “heap” or “aggregate” in English. Sometimes the Buddha compared the skandhas to heaps of rice. They are the “heaps” of psycho-perceptual data that comprise the “contents” of our minds. The five skandhas are conditioned dharmas (literally, “conditioned things”), which is to say that they are impermanent and empty, and when improperly understood lead to delusive attachments characterized by greed, anger, and ignorance. The purpose of the Buddha’s five skandha explanation is to help us see through the skandhas, or disentangle ourselves from them. In some Buddhist texts the five skandhas are called the “five covers” because they cover our minds and prevent us from seeing deep levels of reality. In others they are called the “five yin (versus yang)” because they cloud the mind and hide the truth from us. I will discuss each of the five skandhas in the sections below.

1) The first skandha is form. Form, in this case, means anything that leads to, or is capable of leading to, the next skandha. Forms can be visual, auditory, or sensory. They can be dreams, memories, feelings, or moods. Forms are often described as being “obstructions” because, though they may lead to complex thought and activity, they are also hindrances to mental clarity since the activity they lead to is essentially delusive. It is important to remember that the five skandha explanation is an explanation of the deluded mind and its thought processes.

The Abhidharma-mahavibhasa Shastra categorizes the skandha of form into three types:

a) Visible forms with a referent in the outer world such as color, size, length, position, shape, and so on.

b) Invisible forms with a referent in the outer world that are associated with the other sensory organs such as sounds, smells, tastes, and the sensations arising from physical contact.

c) Invisible forms with no referent in the outer world such as dreams, memories, thoughts, feelings, and so on. Though a dream may be “visible” to the dreamer, it is called “invisible” here because no one else can see it. This last category of forms is associated with what the Buddha called “mental dharmas.”

2) The second skandha is sensation. Following the appearance of a form, the mind reacts to it with a sensation that is either positive, negative, or neutral. We either like it, don’t like it, or are neutral about it. Though it is possible to become conscious of this skandha, most of us most of the time are not.

Sensations are generally categorized into two types:

a) Sensations of the body coming from the outside world through any of the sensory organs, such as sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and so on.

b) Sensations of the mind which may or may not come from the outside world. These include moods, feelings, memories, dreams, thoughts, ideas, and so on.

Both kinds of sensation are, of course, based on the prior appearance of a form. Greed and anger have their roots in the skandha of sensation, for if we enjoy a positive sensation we are liable to become greedy about it, while if we do not enjoy it, we are liable to become “angry” or irritable concerning it. The deep meaning of greed is “excessive attraction” to a sensation that we deem to be agreeable or positive, while the deep meaning of anger (or hatred) is “excessive aversion” to a sensation that we deem disagreeable or negative. Neutral sensations often are the result of our ignorance or lack of understanding, though as we progress in Buddhist practice they may be the result of wisdom.

Positive and negative sensations associated with the body are generally considered to be weaker than those associated with the mind, though both types of sensations often are interrelated. An example of this mixture and distinction might be a light slap in the face. While the physical sensation is only mildly unpleasant, the mental sensation will be quite strong in most cases. And yet both are interrelated.

3) The third skandha is perception. This skandha refers to the deepening of a sensation. It is the point where the mind begins to latch onto its sensations. At this point conscious recognition of form and sensation normally begins. It is possible to become conscious of the first and second skandhas as they are occurring, but most of us generally are not. During the skandha of perception we begin making conscious distinctions among things.

4) The fourth skandha is mental activity. This skandha refers to the complex mental activity that often follows upon the skandha of perception. Once we have identified (perceived) something, long trains of mental associations become active. Our bodies may also begin to move and behave during this skandha. For example, the simple perception of a travel poster may set in motion a great deal of mental activity. We may begin recalling an old trip or begin fantasizing about a new one. If we are photographers, we may admire the composition of the photo, step closer to it, make an effort to remember it, and so on. All of these behaviors belong to the skandha of mental activity.

5) The fifth skandha is individual consciousness. It is a product of the first four skandhas and is completely conditioned by them. This is what we normally, more or less, think of as being our “self.” The Buddha taught the five skandhas primarily to help us understand that this “self” or consciousness is empty since it is entirely based on the conditions found in the first four skandhas.

The Ekkotarika-agama explains this point very well. It says, “The Buddha said that the skandha of form is like foam, the skandha of sensation is like a bubble, the skandha of perception is like a wild horse, the skandha of mental activity is like a banana tree, and thus the skandha of individual consciousness is nothing more than an illusion.” The trunk of a banana tree is made of leaves curled together. From the outside, it may look substantial, but if we examine it closely we will find that one leaf pulls away from the next, leaving ultimately nothing behind. The trunk looks substantial, but in truth it is “empty.” In just this way, our individual consciousness may look substantial to us, but if we peel it apart, we find that there is no self within—it is empty.

How to Understand the Five Skandhas

Though most of us are not normally aware of the first two skandhas it is possible to become aware of them through meditation and mindfulness practices. Though it is easier to begin understanding the five skandhas by thinking of them as being separate and distinct, it is important to realize that any of the last four skandhas can give rise to the skandha of form. Mental activity itself, for example, can generate whole new trains of forms, sensations, and perceptions.

Another important thing to understand about the five skandhas is that our minds move very quickly from one to the next. The five skandhas produce a snow storm of impressions and mentation, upon which rests our unstable conscious world. When we become overly attached to this snow storm or to the consciousness built upon it, we generate the karma that ultimately fuels the five skandhas in the first place.

The Explanation of Mahayana Terms (en 1212) says that the skandhas can be understood as being either good, bad, or neutral. The goodness mentioned in this explanation should be understood as being a relative goodness that arises within the phenomenal world—though it is “good,” it is not the same as an enlightened vision that completely sees through the five skandhas. For this reason, we will use the word “positive” in place of “goodness” in this discussion. The Explanation says that positive activation of the five skandhas can be of three types: activation by a positive form, such as a Buddhist image; activation by skillful means, such as a desire to help someone; and activation within a pure-minded person. The Explanation says that the three bad or negative types of activation of the five skandhas result from: simple badness within them, as may have derived from low motives or moodiness; contaminations within them, such as selfishness during an act of kindness; and negativity that is simply the result of bad karma. The Explanation says that the three neutral types of activation are: formal activations that result from the performance of rituals; activations resulting from the practice of a skill; and neutral changes among the skandhas themselves.

How to Contemplate the Five Skandhas

The second noble truth of Buddhism is the cause of suffering. Generally, this cause is explained as clinging to a false self. By contemplating the five skandhas, we learn to understand both that the self is empty and why it is empty. This contemplation appeals to the rational mind for it allows us to use reason to convince ourselves that the “self” we call our own is, in truth, an illusion.

In contemplating the five skandhas we should be mindful that we begin to generate karma during the skandha of perception. At the same time, it is important to realize that the very forms we see and the sensations that result from them are heavily conditioned by our past actions, by the accumulation of karmic “seeds” or influences that are already stored in our minds. Two people may see exactly the same form, but have very different responses to it because their karma is not the same. Since their karma is different, their sensations and perceptions, and especially their mental activity and consciousness will be very different.

The Numerical Teachings of Great Ming Dynasty Tripitaka says (en 1213) that the most important way to understand the five skandhas is to realize that each of them is empty. As we become familiar with the five skandhas, we will find it easier to identify each one and contemplate its emptiness. We can think about them from first to last or from last to first.

If we choose to think of them from last to first, our contemplation will consist of a series of questions, whose answers should be considered deeply. We begin by asking ourselves what the skandha of individual consciousness is based upon. The answer is the roiling mentation of the skandha of mental activity. The skandha of mental activity becomes apparent as soon as we sit down to meditate. Having identified this skandha and appreciated its fundamental emptiness, we can ask ourselves what it is based upon. The answer is the skandha of perception. First the mind seizes one of its impressions (the skandha of perception), then a long train of thought and emotion follows (the skandha of mental activity). Having appreciated this process, we then ask ourselves what the skandha of perception is based upon. The answer is sensation—of the many forms and feelings passing through our minds, one of them gave rise to either a positive or negative sensation (neutral sensations are usually ignored by the mind). It is this sensation that led to the skandha of perception. If we can appreciate this, then we can ask what the skandha of sensation is based upon. The answer is form—either an outer or inner form. Were it not for this form, none of the other skandhas would have arisen.

If we choose to contemplate from the first skandha to the last, we may choose a form and then carefully watch how our minds process it. We will see that form leads to sensation, then to perception, then to mental activity, and lastly to individual consciousness—a state of mind deeply colored by the skandhas below it. Bear in mind that when the five skandhas are simply happening of themselves and no one is watching them, we are normally unconscious of the activity of the first two skandhas. Before most of us are even aware of what we are perceiving, we have begun to react to it. It requires some skill to see that forms give rise to positive, negative, or neutral sensations before they give rise to the skandha of perception, but this is the case in a normally active mind.

The quotation cited previously from the Ekkotarika-agama can also be used as a very fine contemplation. The agama said, “The Buddha said that the skandha of form is like foam, the skandha of sensation is like a bubble, the skandha of perception is like a wild horse, the skandha of mental activity is like a banana tree, and thus the skandha of individual consciousness is nothing more than an illusion.” The skandha of form is like foam in a stream—at any moment scores of forms contend for our attention. The skandha of sensation is like a bubble—suddenly we react to a single bubble within the foam. The skandha of perception is like a wild horse—we can never be sure which way our mind will turn at this point. The skandha of mental activity is like a banana tree—it consists of many things wrapped together. And thus, the skandha individual consciousness is empty, an illusion.

ABN

UPDATE: FIML practice can be understood in terms of the five skandhas in this way: A FIML query begins at or interrupts the skandha of mental activity. Through training and prior agreement, partners learn to identify a fraught psychological response at the third skandha–perception–and thereby shift away from habitual mental activity to FIML mental activity. The FIML query at this points implicitly asks is my habitual perception based on fact? The FIML query should be made in as neutral a tone as possible to avoid influencing your partner. Your partner’s reply will either confirm or refute your habitual perception. FIML is a dynamic and very powerful form of mindfulness that allows partners to be much more objective about the granular workings of their minds. After hundreds of FIML queries, partners will establish a database of objective insight into their own (and each other’s) psychology that is much more accurate than what can be done alone or through general discussion with anyone. ABN

Manifesto: New axioms of linguistics, philosophy, and psychology are much needed

The sciences or fields of inquiry mentioned in the headline above need companions based on different premises. These companions might be called speechology, thinkology, and beology.

Speechology would be founded on the axioms that we speak and that the proximate impetus and deep impetus of almost all speech acts are profoundly important, complex, consequential, revealing, and even enlightening. In scientific terms, they are profoundly satisfying to observe and understand and much follows from observing and understanding them.

Something similar can be said about thinkology and beology or a fourth science of actology.

Moving these fields of inquiry away from the fields named in the headline above will give them a fresh start, allowing them to make new discoveries based on new observations, practices, insights, and conclusions.

For example, some of this work has already been done in speechology, the results of which include and inform the fields of thinkology and beology. In addition to the axioms that “we speak” and that “the impetus of speech acts is complex and revealing,” we also have the discovered and richly explored the axiom that “interpersonal speech acts often are seriously misunderstood and not corrected” thus leading to the axiom that touches upon thinkology and beology that “as a result, our thinking and acting are often profoundly in error leading to massive snowballing and suffering from then on.”

The above paragraph makes several nontrivial statements based on demonstrable facts derived from a copious study of speechology. This study has been done using FIML rules and procedures. The difficulty in sharing the knowledge gained through FIML practice is it is based on the interpersonal communications of two unique individuals. This does not make it less scientific. This makes it a precise tool, akin to a microscope or measuring device. Other individuals can use this same precise tool to see and measure their speechologies.

Virtually all people will initially understand a speechology inquiry such as FIML in terms of the linguistics, philosophy, and psychology they already know. This will hamper rapid understanding of what FIML is and what it does because real FIML data will all be fundamentally unique to the individuals doing it. Yes, many insights will be generalizable but the tendency to generalize will immediately lead away from the precision of the FIML tool, thus dulling its resolution and accuracy. This is a very important distinction. It is this distinction that gives FIML its power and that calls for a new name for this field of inquiry.

Meaning and identity

  • Meaning can be defined as two or more signaling 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 signaling 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 signaling systems. This “defines” time and space in terms of signaling 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 signaling 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.
first posted August 22, 2013

A signal-based model of psychology: part four

In the first three parts of A signal based model of psychology, we discussed micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding and how paying attention to these levels can make human signaling easier to comprehend.

In this post I want to discuss how human signaling is normally managed and, knowing this, how we can better understand how it affects us.

In truth, there are countless possible interpretations for every moment of every day if we choose to notice them. In the material world of doing familiar things in familiar surroundings, we handle the abundance of possible interpretations by simply ignoring most of them. We put our minds on autopilot and do our tasks by accessing rote procedures and memories.

In social situations, though the stakes may be higher psychologically, we do much the same. Rather than wonder about the vast majority of communicative exchanges with others, we generally put our minds in social autopilot mode and interpret what we are hearing and perceiving according to fairly simple rules we have already established.

Continue reading “A signal-based model of psychology: part four”

Why FIML queries need to be asked quickly

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A fascinating Swedish study claims to show that:

…the sense of agency for speech has a strong inferential component, and that auditory feedback of one’s own voice acts as a pathway for semantic monitoring, potentially overriding other feedback loops.

The source of that quote can be found here: Speakers’ Acceptance of Real-Time Speech Exchange Indicates That We Use Auditory Feedback to Specify the Meaning of What We Say.

In an article about the study above—People Rely on What They Hear to Know What They’re Saying—lead author Andreas Lind says that he is aware that the conditions of their research did not allow for anything resembling real conversational dynamics and that he hopes to study “…situations that are more social and spontaneous — investigating, for example, how exchanged words might influence the way a… conversation develops.”

FIML partners will surely recognize that without the monitoring of their FIML practice many conversations would veer off into mutually discordant interpretations and that many of these veerings-off are due to nothing more than sloppy or ambiguous speech or listening.

If speakers have to listen to themselves to monitor what they are saying and still misspeak with surprising frequency, then instances of listeners mishearing must be even more frequent since listeners (normally) do not have any way to check what they are hearing or how they are interpreting it in real-time.

That is, listeners who do not do FIML. FIML practice is designed to correct mistakes of both speaking and listening in real-time. FIML queries must be asked quickly because speakers can only accurately remember what was in their mind when they spoke for a short period of time, usually just a few seconds.

The Swedish study showed that in a great many cases words that speakers had not spoken “were experienced as self-produced.” That is speakers can be fooled into thinking they said something they had not said. How much more does our intention for speaking get lost in the rickety dynamics of real conversation?

This study is small but I believe it is showing what happens when we speak (and listen). Most of the time, and even when we are being careful, we make a good many mistakes and base our interpretations of ourselves and others on those mistakes. I do not see another way to correct this very common problem except by doing FIML or something very much like it.

In future, I hope there will be brain scan technology that will be accurate enough to let us see how poorly our perceptions of what we are saying or hearing match reality and/or what others think we are saying or hearing.

It is amazing to me that human history has gone on for so many centuries with no one having offered a way to fix this problem which leads to so many disasters.

first posted APRIL 30, 2014

Narcissism, a semiotic interpretation

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The simplest definition of narcissism is “narrow or reduced interpretation(s) of psychological signs.”

This is a functional definition that provides insight into a wide range of human psychological reactions.

A broad example of psychological narcissism using the above definition is alcoholism which reduces sign interpretation due both to inebriation and toxicity.

Notice this definition does not presuppose anything psychological about the alcoholic. Alcoholism reduces sign interpretation due to the chemical properties of ethanol.

Alcoholism damages and simplifies the brain’s capacity to entertain multiple interpretations of signs. This is the core reason why so many alcoholics display narcissistic behaviors.

Somewhat similarly, small children can be functionally “narcissistic” because their brains are not developed. Like an alcoholic on the other side of life, a small child simply does not have the brain complexity to entertain multiple interpretations.

Narcissism is a simple and very basic operating system. This is why it is a normal option for both undeveloped and alcoholic brains.

The cure for narcissism is help the narcissist see multiple interpretations.

I believe that most if not all psychological analyses of individuals should be applicable to groups of people and vice versa.

Thus, a group with a reduced interpretation of signs will probably be a narcissistic group.

Groups that insist on a single interpretation of the past or the present are examples of this.

first posted JUNE 14, 2017

End-user cultural consumption as narcissism

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I don’t really like the term narcissism because it is vague and in important ways can be applied to almost anyone.

The concept does have value though in that it is widely recognized and understood and does seem to point to something real.

Narcissism basically means being excessively selfish, self-centered, or vain. We can imagine a narcissist as someone who is trapped in a hall of mirrors, or trapped in their own imagination. Being trapped by your own imagination sounds paradoxical. But we can indeed become trapped when the terms, elements, or substance of our imagination is trapped in something else. Just as our bodies can be trapped in a prison cell, so our minds can be trapped within limited concepts, a limited sense of our options.

I contend that end-users of culture (virtually all of us) are trapped. A better term than end-user might be retail consumer. In this sense, we could say that retail consumers of culture are trapped by what they are consuming. I avoided the word retail above because it implies buying things with money. What I mean is accepting cultural norms as real or complete or good enough when they are not.

Rather than define narcissism in the usual ways, let me now define it based on signaling. A narcissist is someone who exhibits “unnecessarily reduced signaling.”

What does that mean?

Unnecessarily in this context means it doesn’t have to be that way. Reduced means there could be much more. Signaling means any and all communicative signals—words, expressions, gestures, actions, etc., but especially words.

A retail consumer of a culture, thus, unnecessarily accepts reduced signaling. To put it another way, end-users of culture are trapped  by what they have consumed or “bought.”

Retail implies wholesale while end-user implies that the thing used was made or designed by someone else. For cultures, this implication is exactly right. Very few people make culture, though culture most definitely is made by some people.

Why are end-users or retail consumers of cultures narcissists?

They are narcissists because they are trapped within the reduced signaling of the culture they have “bought.” The wholesalers of culture, those who have made it, don’t think the signals are “unnecessarily” reduced; they want them to be that way. They want end-users to accept their ideas and do what they say, which is what most people do.

Most end-users have no idea they are trapped and do not consider themselves narcissists. But they are narcissists because they are completely stuck at the retail level. They have little or no control over how they understand things. And they have almost no control over how they speak to other end-users or how they hear other end-users.

How do I know this? One way is this: people almost everywhere are capable of complex understanding, be it tying flies for fishing, knitting, doing engineering, designing a home, etc. Nearly everyone exhibits complex understanding of at least a few things.

But almost no one exhibits a complex use of communicative signals. This is so because communicative signals move quickly and usually move through sound (speech).

Without training, it is very difficult to isolate and analyze communicative signaling in real-time. And if you don’t do it in real-time, there is no other way to do it. Even if you have a tape and a video of a communicative exchange, it is impossible to be sure of your analysis after the fact.

Real-time signaling is quick and complex. A single mistake can change the course of a conversation in one person’s mind without changing it in the other person’s mind. From that point on, mistakes will multiply.

What all of us normally do almost all of the time to correct for this problem or difficulty is we reduce our signaling.

And what do we reduce it to? We reduce it to cultural norms. Like narcissists, we assume that other end-users think like us, speak like us, and hear things in roughly the same way we do. If there is any confusion, most of us run quickly toward the nearest retail cultural artifact, thus blurring the real exchange and permanently trapping ourselves in end-user culture.

The mores, taboos, and preferences of culture become what we think we are. And that is a profoundly reduced package from what we are capable of. If you have any complex skill or understanding of anything, take a moment to compare it to how you conceive of your own mind during acts of communication. Or the minds of others during acts of communication.

I bet your understanding of how to take care of your tropical fish or do your favorite hobby is better and more detailed than how you conceive of your communication with others.This is the narcissism of the cultural end-user. It’s a small, made-by-others, prison of ideas within which the individual, maddeningly, resides.

If you do have a complex conception of communication, I bet it is strategical, designed to get you what you want and is thus narcissistic in that sense.

Rather than end on this depressing note, I can add the way to fix this problem. Do FIML or something very much like it. Once you can control, analyze, and fully understand real-time communication, you will be free of or have the means to get free of the reduced terms of retail culture.

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Update 11/4/14: Another way to view end-user cultural narcissism is through the concept of “narcissistic supply,” which is “…a type of admiration, interpersonal support or sustenance drawn by an individual from his or her environment and essential to their self-esteem.”

Retail consumers of culture require narcissistic supply that validates their cultural consumption, admires it, praises it, agrees with it, and conforms to it. Retail culture is deeply characterized by fairly set patterns of mutual narcissistic supply that permit only slight deviation from whatever its norms are. My guess is scam artists and psychopaths learn how to work the patterns of narcissistic supply to get what they want. Scam artists often deflect moral judgement against themselves by saying that they were only able to fool people because those people wanted to believe. There is much truth in this defense though, of course, wanting to believe is not the same as wanting to be fooled or cheated. In a similar vein, retail cultural narcissists are capable of a sort of psychopathic behavior themselves in that they cannot bear to have their supply-values ignored or disrespected and will lash out, often with great vehemence, at anyone who does not comply with their need for supply.

first posted NOVEMBER 3, 2014

Semiotic valence

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In a previous post, I introduced the concept of semiotic wells. A semiotic well is like a space-time “gravitational well” within a semiotic network. By this, I mean that part of the semiotic network has some heavy things in it—primary semiotics that pull other nodes within the network toward them.

For example, someone with the view that they have some sort of personality will tend to associate many of their perceptions and thoughts with the features of that personality. Their belief in their personality type will tend to make them see and understand the world in those terms.

I doubt that “having” a personality is all that much different from having a hobby. And I bet most people can move from one personality type to another about as easily as they can move from one hobby to another.

Of course there are constraints and limitations in the development of hobbies just as there are in the development of personalities.

We can gain profitable understanding of the mind by conceiving of it as a network of semiotic units. It is a network because the semiotic elements of the mind are all interconnected. It does not take much imagination to connect any semiotic element in your mind to any other. Apple-red-communism. Or apple-pie-American.

By association we can connect anything in this way.

Every semiotic element in the mind has a valence. In different contexts, the valences for any element will differ, and oftentimes they are neutral, but they are there. A semiotic well organizes valences as well as meaning, intention, belief, value.

For some people, speech is used to socialize, to make friends, to gain and keep access to other people. The valence of major parts of their semiotic network is aimed at socializing with others. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others compliment or reciprocate their social valences.

In contrast, for some other people, speech is used to share ideas, to analyze, to teach and to learn. The valences of their semiotic networks are primarily aimed at sharing ideas. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others reciprocate these valences.

Many semiotic wells and semiotic valences are formed accidentally, randomly, arbitrarily. Once we take on any bit of meaning, even if only slightly, there is always a chance that it will snowball into a significant semiotic well.

The Beatles alluded to this when they sang Had it been another day/ I might have looked the other way/ And I’d have never been aware/ But as it is I dream of her tonight.

This doesn’t just happen with love but with many of our other interests. We form semiotic wells—sometimes very quickly—for what are often very trivial reasons or no reason at all.

Much of what we are comes about through accident or chance. This happens because semiotics and the ways valences become attached to them are frequently very simple. Once a semiotic well begins forming it often grows, and as it does it pulls in or rearranges elements from other parts of our semiotic network.

Once a well is formed or given to us, it can greatly determine how we perceive the world and what we value in it.

This is why propaganda succeeds so well, and is sort of easy to do if you have a lot of money and access to important public forums. All a propagandist has to do is start your mind in one direction and then add more information and more valence. Most people see the world in terms of simple dichotomies, so all the propagandist needs to do is decide what they want and contrast it favorably against what they don’t want.

Want war? Make the public perceive the enemy you want as an enemy, then add info while increasing valence. Columnists will write many thousands of words about the desired war, but the basic sociology of it for the general public is always very simple.

Of course sometimes the trick fails. With Syria the basic formula—terrorists/poison gas/war—failed, probably because the public had been fooled too many times before with similar formulas (Sadam/WMD/war).

If you can see past words and feelings to the core of the semiotic well, you will see that many things in this world are quite simple. It is no accident that people communicate largely in very simple terms.

first posted MARCH 20, 2014

Signal intensity during interpersonal communication

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An important part of FIML practice is understanding signal intensity. That is, how big or strong or important the signal in question is.

FIML practice was designed to work with small signals and works best when close attention is paid to small signals. These “small signals” can be ones you send to your partner, ones your partner sends to you, or the ways in which either one of you interprets any signal at all.

Small signals are of great importance because they can be signs or aspects of larger or habitual ways of interpreting signals. Small signals can also generate mistaken interpretations that have the potential to snowball.

An example of a habitual way of interpreting signals might be a person who grew up in a less wealthy environment than his or her partner. The less wealthy partner may tend to interpret spending or not spending money differently than the other partner. This could manifest as stinginess, being too generous, or as mild anxiety about money in general. Of course, both partners will be different in the ways they interpret signals dealing with money. Their semiotics about money will be different.

FIML partners would do well to deal with these differences by paying close attention to small signals of that type the moment they come up. This is where partners will come to see how this entire class (money) of signals is affecting them in the moments of the lives they are actually living. It’s good to also have long general discussions about money, but be sure to pay close attention to the appearances of small signals.

From this example, please extrapolate to the signaling areas that matter to you and your partner. These may include anything that causes mistakes in communication or anything that causes either partner to feel anxiety or discomfort.

A good way to gain access to this perspective is to also pay close attention to how often you and your partner miscommunicate about trivial material things. Notice how often—and it happens a lot—you misunderstand each other about even the simplest of concrete, material matters. For example, what kind of lettuce to buy, where you left the keys, is the oven off, etc.

All people everywhere make many communicative mistakes in matters as small as those. If we do that in the material realm, where mistakes are easy to see and correct, consider how much more often and how much more serious are signaling mistakes in the emotional, interpersonal realm.

When you do a FIML discussion with your partner, be sure to frequently include an analysis of how big or small the signals in question are—how intense they are. Remember that FIML practice strongly encourages discussing even the very smallest of signals. FIML does that because small signals are easier to isolate and analyze; clearly seeing a small signal often is sufficient to understanding a big habit; small signals can snowball, so they should not be ignored.

first posted 10/01/2012

the fundamental underlying problem of problems is the chaos of interpersonal ambiguity

320 words

race, racism, identity politics, the majority of psychological diagnoses and personality types, all culture, all religions, all sects, all regionalism, nationalism, styles, gangs, gender identities, fads, etc.; all of it grows out of the boiling cauldron of ineluctable interpersonal ambiguity
cast your eyes across the world and its histories, no matter how big or small, no matter which corner of the globe; all of it grows or has grown out of the boiling cauldron of ineluctable interpersonal ambiguity

individual humans, with rare exception, need the external signs and symbols of “culture” (semiologies) to provide the unifying markers and coordinates that (appear) to save them from the fear and angst and madness of being naked in the boiling cauldron of ineluctable interpersonal ambiguity
that’s just how it is. period. no exceptions


the only other option different from all of the above, the only option that will actually save you from the boiling cauldron is FIML practice. did you expect more signs and symbols at this point? more abstract ideas? political solutions? new identities? not gonna happen because none of that works
FIML is a dynamic method that must be used to bear fruit. if you are smart you probably can figure out how to do it from reading enough posts on this website


it does bother me that there is no other way out, no other real hope. yet I am also heartened to know that FIML is not very hard to do once you understand it. if enough people do it, more will follow because the results are extremely good. and from that the fundamental problem of problems will gradually clear up and go away

a note to Buddhists: FIML is perfectly compatible with all Buddhist teachings. you could think of FIML as an addon that catalyzes traditional methods and makes them work faster. FIML sharpens mindfulness and provides profound insight into the deep meaning of non-attachment, no-self, and karma

Buddhism and ethical signaling

Buddhism is very much a system of ethics. Buddhist practice is founded on the Five Precepts of refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and the irresponsible use of alcohol.

In most Buddhist traditions, these precepts are taught as if they are fundamental to the workings of the universe. But how can morality be fundamental to the workings of the universe? How does it really even matter to human beings?

If we think of a human being as a signaling system, we may be able to show that ethical thoughts and behavior are of fundamental importance to the system itself.

Human signaling systems signal internally, within themselves, and externally, toward other people. Our most important signaling system is the one we share with that person who is most important to us, our mate or best friend. Let’s confine our discussion to this sort of primary signaling system.

If I lie to my partner or cheat her, I may gain something outside of our shared signaling system, but that signaling system will suffer. And when that shared system suffers, my own internal signaling system will also suffer because it will contain errors. It will no longer be in its optimal state. Similarly, if she lies to me or cheats me, our mutual signaling system will become less than optimal as will both of our individual, or internal, signaling systems.

My own signaling system cannot grow or become optimal without my partner treating me with the best ethical behavior she can muster. And the same is true for her with respect to me. And we both know this.

We would be good to each other anyway, but it is helpful to see that our being good to each other has a very practical foundation—it assures us optimal performance of our mutual and internal signaling systems.

FIML practice is designed to provide partners with a clear and reasonably objective means to communicate honestly with each other. FIML practice will gradually optimize communication between partners by making it much clearer and more honest. In doing this, it will also optimize the operations of their mutual and individual signaling systems.

To my knowledge, there is nothing like FIML in any Buddhist tradition. But if I try to read FIML into the tradition, I may be able to find something similar in the way monks traveled together in pairs for much of the year. I don’t know what instructions the Buddha may have given them or how they spoke to each other, but it may be that they did a practice with each other similar to FIML practice.

In any case, if we view human being as a signaling system, we may be able to claim that clear signaling—that is, ethical signaling—is fundamental to the optimization of that system.

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first posted FEBRUARY 3, 2013

Status as a fetish

Fetish can be defined as “a part standing for the whole” or “one thing being made bigger than it is by having become a psychological fixation.”

A good example of what I mean is pornography. Insofar as a mere image can stand for or replace instinctual sexual objectives, it is a fetish.

A sign (pornographic image) is as strong or stronger than the animal instinct. Or a sign can direct or redirect the animal instinct. That is a fetish.

Secondary sex characteristics do the same thing. You could call them nature’s fetishes but that would be stretching the concept. Human utilizations of makeup, clothing, and grooming could be said to stand “halfway” between the basic sexual instinct and the fetishized porno image.

Let’s apply that reasoning to status.

Two social psychologist I respect—Jordan Peterson and Kevin MacDonald—have both claimed many times that status is a fundamental human instinct and that it drives human behavior in many ways.

In posts on this site, I have disagreed with these ideas several times. I just don’t see it that way. Here are two of those posts: Status and hierarchy are as fundamental to human life as murder and Jordan Peterson on the gender pay gap, campus protests and the patriarchy.

In the second link just above, I said:

…I do not believe that social status is any more fundamental to human nature than murder is. Humans also possess reason and spiritual inclinations both of which can guide us away from status competition if we decide to do that and/or our conditions allow.

I still think that but over the past day or two a new understanding of the importance of status and human hierarchy has dawned on me. In essence, I think I have come to see that status really is a huge deal for many people; a much bigger deal than I had ever realized.

My explanation for that is people like me (and there are many of us) during childhood and adolescence see the “status game” as a choice. And we decide not to play it.

My SO made that choice. When we talked about this subject this morning, she said people like us are more open to art (in a broad sense) and less concerned with social hierarchies. I think that’s true. One good friend years ago used to call me a “now person,” meaning I am always living in the here and now and not doing a lot of planning for the future. I think she also meant or implied that I am not doing any thinking about my social status or the human hierarchies that surround me.

A Buddhist nun who is a close friend has often described mundane human behaviors as being motivated by jealousy. I have often disagreed with her, believing that her emphasis on jealousy was influenced too much by her culture (Chinese) or by the innocence of her monastic lifestyle.

Today, I think she was influenced by the status-conscious world she had grown up in and as a young adult renounced for Buddhism. But I also think she was able to see something I have been almost completely blind to. For me status has always been a very small cloud on the edge of the sky, not a major thunderstorm in human motivation. For her it is, or was, a storm in the human mind.

Status is a fetish. And fetishization does explain a lot about it. But if lots of people have that fetish or have that strong understanding of status, that’s how it is. As a social construct the status fetish can be even bigger and more imposing than the basic instinct it rests upon.

I hope this post helps people who see status as important understand people like me and my SO, and vice versa.

From a Buddhist point of view, I think it is important to fully understand the entire status spectrum—from instinct to fetishized sign—and to understand where you are on that spectrum and where the people you deal with are on that spectrum.

My guess is that most people reading this blog do not think of status as being very important. People like us need to appreciate that status is probably largely what motivates good people like Jordan Peterson as well as bad people like Bernie Madoff.

Might also be good if status-conscious people would understand that people like us are not all slackers or losers, nor are we seething with envy over your status. We mostly do not even see the game you are playing.

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first posted SEPTEMBER 10, 2019