“No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show
that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.” ---Thich Nhat Hanh
I’ve spent most of my life looking for understanding. In school, I studied to understand. In
Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, it was essential to understand the mechanisms that drove
the chemical reactions. In Physiology, it was essential to understand the mechanisms that
determined how our bodies function. In Anatomy, it was essential to understand the relationship
between the parts of the body and how they interact with each other, how forces were
distributed, how structure influenced function. This has been my path.
And then, in practice, helping people to understand what was happening to them was such a
great gift I could give to them. It helped give meaning to their suffering, and it gave them ideas
to gather their strength and put together a plan to overcome the illness. At the very least, it
helped them to understand why they needed to take a medication, or have surgery, or undergo a
treatment to help steer the course of their illness back toward better health. At times, it helped to
inform people or their loved ones about what it was going to be like as they approached death.
That can be a blessing, too.
I have used this as a guidepost for the work I have done in my relationships with patients, my
family and friends, my business colleagues… I thought this was the way to go, and there was no
limit to what you can try to understand. But you know, there is a limit to understanding.
Who am I to have a conversation about the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, winner of a Nobel Peace
Prize and arguably one of the most influential peacemakers in the history of the world?
It is true that the quest for truth and understanding is a noble one, and that a lifetime is a very
small amount of time in which to broaden one’s context of understanding. In reaching for
understanding, we get a lot of wrinkles on our forehead and around our eyes for sending out
the non verbal message to the world that we would like to hear what other people have to
say…(picture the face of one who is listening to you with interest… eyebrows raised, crinkles
around the smiling eyes encouraging you to continue your story….). but…
Things happen that we don’t understand. Contingencies collide in our world to completely
blindside us some days. Sometimes we remain disoriented for years at a time. Worst case: you
probably know someone close to you that has spent their life after a particular event-- bitter,
mean, and depressed. Maybe they are just withdrawn and shut down. Maybe they drank
themselves into oblivion and are dead now. Maybe they became the famous martyr in your
family. Things that appear to be bad happen to good people. Things that appear to be good
happen to people we don’t think deserve their apparently fortunate circumstances. The world
seems like a very dangerous and confused place. There does not seem to be enough (insert your
favorite thought habit here)….money, energy, time, opportunity, help, compassion,
understanding, talent, ability, etc.-- to make it possible to change your life in the way you wish
Do you see the paradox between the wise words of wisdom about Understanding and our
common experience of having things happen that seem impossible to understand? It can be
confusing, yes? no? yes?
So what is UNDERSTANDING anyway?
Merriam-Webster says: first as a noun, understanding means these things:. a mental grasp,
comprehension. 2a. The power of comprehending, especially the capacity to
apprehend general relations of particulars. 2b. the power to make experience intelligible by
applying concepts and categories. 3a. friendly or harmonious relationship. 3b. an agreement
of opinion of feeling: adjustment of differences. 3c. a mutual agreement not formally entered into
but in some degree binding on each side. 4. Explanation, interpretation. 5. sympathy
But as an Adjective, it means: 1. Knowing, intelligent. 2. Endowed with understanding, tolerant,
sympathetic, as with a kind and understanding teacher who often helps troubled students.
That sounds like something worthy of a great life-long pursuit. But do you feel (as I do) that this
is a difficult and rarely achieved state for most of the people you know? The truth of it is that the
world is really complicated and overwhelming. Understanding ourselves is a lifelong task that only
people like Thich Nhat Hanh actually manage to accomplish. Understanding someone else is
exponentially harder, and if we don’t understand ourselves, we are likely to project our own
misperceptions upon them and get into a horrible, twisted mess of a situation.
AND SO MY COUNSEL IS TO LET GO OF THE ATTACHMENT TO UNDERSTANDING.
The important words here are the attachment to understanding. It is actually paramount that
we spend our entire life gaining an understanding of our bodies, our emotions, our mind, our
intellect, our spirit. That is the beginning of being able to love our self and others, and the
springboard for healing in the world.
But it is the attachment to understanding that can send us down the infamous rabbit hole of
misperception. And if we think we have reached understanding, we are most likely delusional.
Follow me here, this is going to expand your mind….. Here is where defining
Understanding and defining Yoga come together in a way that will leave you pondering
it for a long time…..
Patanjali, a 2nd Century Mystic whose Sutras are read by every person in the world who aspires
to become a yoga teacher, starts his treatise on Yoga called The Sutras (which is about the path
to union with God) with the definition of Yoga. Chapter One, verses 1, 2, and 3: “Now begins the
exposition on yoga. Yoga is the cessation of identifying with the fluctuations arising within
consciousness. Then the seer abides in his own true form.”
I invite you to study this work; it is one of the worlds’ great treasures. The key here is in the way
our minds tend to attach to things, like Understanding as a noun or as an adjective. We try, and
we should try to understand what is happening to us, to our family and friends, and in the
world, but we are woefully inadequate to have the capacity to understand these things at the
level of complexity in which they exist. I think as a noun, Understanding is not obtainable in our
present state of awareness--but as an adjective, it can be something we practice. That is my sense
of what Thich Nhat Hanh is saying about how understanding leads to love.
Don’t fool yourself. Sometimes understanding is just not going to be possible today. Instead of
writing, saying, or believing some sound bite, spend more time listening, learning, asking how
you can be more kind and tolerant and slow down long enough to learn about your own and
your friend’s lives and circumstances. That is the road to Understanding, and it is a loving thing
to do with your time and your attention.