What is understanding?

For many years I’ve taken for granted the power of understanding to change one’s perspective for the better.

But seeking to always understand more, better, or deeper is as much a form of escapism as any addiction or distraction.

The trouble with understanding is that it masquerades as a pure positive. It’s hard to say “I understand well enough” or “I don’t need to understand better” let alone “I’m okay with not understanding”.

Even coming to the realisation that “understanding is escapist” feels like yet more evidence of the value of understanding!

Perhaps it will help to know what “understanding” really means? That might risk us seeking to understand understanding, but let’s give it a try anyway.

Understand literally means “to stand in the midst of”.

In practice, understanding is another word for “knowing”. Yet it implies the kind of intimate knowledge that comes with standing amidst or among the thing known. To me it also implies a kind of immersion in the thing known. That’s why I prefer it to “comprehend” which is literally to seize or take hold of something, with implications of use, mastery, and control.

This linguistic clue is significant.

Some people seek knowledge for the sake of power. Others seek it because “the truth shall set you free”. The difference in intention and locus of control is the difference between thinking you can use this knowledge to attain your desired end, versus thinking that reality itself is already perfect if only we could experience it truthfully.

The latter is theoretically superior from a spiritual perspective. Yet in practice it risks being just another way of escaping from your experience of reality.

This is what fuels the escapist pursuit of understanding: the idea that the more we know about reality and the better we understand our spiritual predicament, the closer we come to a different, more positive experience.

There’s merit to the pursuit of understanding because many of the mistakes we make are due to ignorance. “Understanding” stands for the kind of knowledge that defeats ignorance and saves us from suffering and error.

It is not unusual to have great realisations along the spiritual path, to understand things better, and experience significant changes as a result. The problem arises when we tune in to understanding as the path itself, and seek to replicate these realisations again and again through our own power.

Yet it often feels as though we only had the realisation because we sought to understand in the first place. If we hadn’t tried to work it out, would we ever have found the answer?

Perhaps we should ask instead where this knowledge, realisation, and understanding comes from. Do we really just set out to know, and by applying our minds gain the knowledge we seek? Do we truly control our acquisition of knowledge? Are we really responsible for finding the answers that cause change?

At first it seemed like this was the case. But over time it’s become more and more apparent that we’re not in control of our lives, we are the product of them. We are our lives, our experience of reality.

In that sense it is better to observe that my thoughts – whether ignorant or knowing – arise and fall as if of their own accord.

My sense of control is a delusion, because the ‘me’ and the feeling of control are likewise thoughts and impressions that arise and fall. My mind creates an impression of who I am, and an impression of being in control. It creates an impression of understanding but it also creates the impression of ignorance.

This train of thought is a strange one. It is mysterious and seems paradoxical. It’s as if I’m saying that everything is outside my control, yet that implies a control in the first place.

The truth is that I don’t direct the course of my understanding, because the impression of doing so is just another impression. The struggle to cut through the ignorance is another impression. The sense of “aha!” at finally understanding is likewise another impression.

What is motivating me to write this now, to examine this now, is not “me”. It is all coming from the same source, whether it be the thought of continuing, or the thought of seeking distraction in food or household work.

That’s why one branch of Buddhism says:

As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.

As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.

Delusion and realisation belong to a self that is made up of thoughts and impressions but mistaken for the real self. If that mistake is not made, there is no delusion and hence no realisation.

Yet we continually fall back into this non-self that takes up the mantle of a real self and we sustain it continually through thoughts and impressions.

Why do we do that? Well, what if the answer is that we don’t do that. It’s simply done.

It reminds me of something I was trying to write a while ago. We’ve all heard of Descartes’ famous Cogito Ergo Sum – I think therefore I am. What it means is that Descartes was looking for something, some piece of knowledge that he couldn’t possibly doubt.

He settled on the idea that he couldn’t doubt that he exists, because in doubting his own existence it proves that someone must exist to do the doubting. Hence, if I’m doubting, I must exist to doubt.

But subsequent philosophers have argued that this is a mistake. Descartes only assumed from experience that doubts must belong to minds that can doubt. But even that can be doubted.

So what can Descartes know for sure?

Just that thinking is happening.

You think too much

I’ve often been told I think too much, but it has – with no sense of irony – taken years of thinking for me understand what this means.

I would have said that in fact I do not think enough, and I continue thinking precisely because I have not yet arrived at the answers I seek.

Recently I have been thinking about the difference between training and performance, specifically in a martial arts context. My natural tendency upon encountering failure or less-than-ideal circumstances is to think about it. I think because experience has shown that thinking often helps me to understand, and that understanding helps me to do, and to do better than I would if I didn’t understand.

But there are exceptions, and martial arts is one of them. Because, if instead of ‘performing’ the moves I go back to thinking about them and analysing them, the actual quality of the move changes dramatically.  It turns out you cannot both perform a move and analyse a move at the same time. Then the question arises: what are you actually practicing when you practice your martial art? Are you practicing ‘performing’ or doing the moves, or are you practicing thinking about and analysing the moves?

By analogy, it’s as though I’ve found driving a car to be uncomfortable, confusing, and overall dissatisfying, and so I’ve resolved to stay on my learner’s permit for as long as it takes for me to “work it out”.  Sixteen years later, my instructor is thoroughly sick of me, and I’ve finally had to admit that there aren’t really any secrets or revelations to acquire from the learner’s stage, and that I will only ever be good at driving normally if I practice driving normally.

This has particular relevance in martial arts where various luminaries have extolled having a beginner’s mind a la Zen Buddhism, and others have admitted amidst the heights of their skill to be nonetheless always learning.

We obviously aren’t talking about the same thing.

I don’t really know what to make of having spent so long in a flawed approach to practicing a martial art. And paradoxically I still have to credit analysis and “thinking” with having brought me to these realisations. The best I can say is that previously I was thinking about the wrong things. Or I lacked information that I could only come across via the frustration built up through years of dissatisfying practice.

It took years of failure to break through the assumption that kung fu is somehow not dependent first and foremost on a sound physique, or that being bad at sport generally would have nothing to do with being bad at a martial art. Or that the esoteric allure of kung fu might be glossing over a number of more mundane requirements.

Ironically, if I had seriously thought about kung fu in the way that I have learned to think about philosophy, ethics, and other subjects, I would have known to start without assumptions, without desired outcomes. I would have been highly suspicious of the wishful thinking at the heart of my motivation.  At the same time, being more detached from the object of my desire might have left me more open to improvements and inspiration “out of left field”. Instead, my doggedness to pursue this long-standing ideal has been thoroughly detrimental to my development.

All I can say in favour of it is that I have persevered for a long time; but paradoxically, if I had not stuck to this unexamined ideal for so long I might not have needed to be so blindly perseverant.

Craving or desire warps the intellect. We tend to cling to our cravings and desires because they feel so deeply a part of us. But there is always something deeper and more wholesome that is not dependent on external conditions, and if I had been more honest with myself I would have recognised that the very appeal of esoteric martial arts was in fact a symptom of a deeper and more constant awareness that I was not physically strong, balanced, or at ease.

Sertillanges writes in The Intellectual Life:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

I am familiar with this “zone of silence”, and it is the natural answer to the problem of “thinking too much” and thinking not enough. It is not thinking that matters or that gives answers; we do not arrive at truth by thinking about it, rather thinking is merely a manifestation of the work of attending to the truth in its entirety and without holding anything back.

This is our noble and excellent calling, and it is only in stupidity and vanity that I have failed to turn it to other areas of my life, somehow imagining that truth has no bearing on the mundane or strictly personal, perhaps afraid of what I might find when turning that brightest of lights onto the mess and darkness of my own orbit; or intimidated by the magnitude of the task ahead, bringing my own admittedly pathetic self into the same domain as exalted abstractions, principles and truths.

It’s one thing to know truth, quite another to know that you do not measure up to it, or how far you fall short; better not to ask that question, isn’t it?

Indeed, the prospect of bringing my own deeply held desires and ideals, the very personal themes with which I identify, and submitting them to this “zone of silence” is immediately terrifying. And that, more than anything, indicates that I should do it.

 

Imago Dei and the basis of human dignity

My recent article on the awful truth of human dignity produced an interesting discussion, with some readers wanting to emphasise the notion of Imago Dei – the Christian belief that humans are made in the image of God.  I wrote the following reply to a commenter who argued that Imago Dei is a more valid basis for the widespread sense of human dignity:

But I think few people are able to articulate ‘Imago Dei’ either. In terms of knowing something to be true intuitively, even then we ought to be able to reflect on the nature of this knowledge.

For example, the first principles of reason such as “a statement cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same way” cannot be proven, nevertheless we all know it almost intuitively. But on reflection we can find that the truth of this principle is grounded in the more fundamental behaviour of reality, i.e. “an object cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way”.

So there is a deeper basis, and when we know it our understanding is more complete.

Applying the same process to the Imago Dei, Aquinas writes: “some things are like to God first and most commonly because they exist; secondly, because they live; and thirdly because they know or understand; and these last, as Augustine says “approach so near to God in likeness, that among all creatures nothing comes nearer to Him.” It is clear, therefore, that intellectual creatures alone, properly speaking, are made to God’s image.”

Without going into it too deeply, I think the implication is that our intellectual nature is our likeness to God.  This is in fact very closely related to my depiction of dignity. Our capacity to know and to understand is the part of us that is most like God; and one could say that my theory of dignity is merely the humbling recognition that other humans (not merely oneself) are, by nature, able to know and understand and therefore resemble God.

Yet as I said at the start, most people do not seem to have a clear understanding or even a theory of what Imago Dei means. Rather, they derive significance from this teaching at face value.  If, on the other hand, one had no knowledge of God or the Imago Dei concept, one could nonetheless become aware of the reality of the knowing human mind, and as I have shown, the humbling and awesome reality of other people’s minds; and this in itself would be a recognition of Imago Dei without the explicit religious and historical context.

This is not to say that one can have a value or an invented dignity independent of God.  Existence itself depends upon a creator, and we are indeed prone to deluding ourselves with vain concepts and ideas.  But if God has created us in his image, it is okay to inquire as to what this means, what part of us is distinctly God-like in that sense.  This knowledge enriches our understanding of the Imago Dei concept, by showing what the idea is pointing to in reality.

Personally I find it quite exciting to think that what we call ‘Imago Dei’ is a part of human nature universally recognised as somehow transcendent, spiritual, and even divine, in a variety of religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions independent of Judaism and Christianity.  I think this may well open a path for a rapprochement between otherwise quite diverse traditions.

The superior man needs an income

The subtitle of this blog indicates the ambivalence of the virtue traditions towards utility. Whether Chinese or Western, philosophy has never sold itself as the means to everyday ends such as wealth, power, prestige, or any of the untold lusts and desires that drive human behaviour.

Yet we are so used to thinking and speaking in terms of utility that we can hardly communicate the excellence of this path. Everyday terms, utilitarian terms of ‘skill’, ‘values’, ‘proficiencies’, and ‘outcomes’ seem out of place when discussing virtue, wisdom, reason, and the countless fields of inquiry to which philosophers have turned their attention.

Nonetheless this is my challenge: I have been asked for the sake of my future employment prospects to elucidate my abilities; and while it may be tempting to simply write ‘analytic skills and problem solving’, I feel it doesn’t really do justice to what is on the one hand my most obvious ‘proficiency’, and on the other hand the greatest obstacle for my future employment. Anyway, here goes:

Whenever a situation, problem, usual or unusual circumstance comes to my attention I can’t help but try to understand it. By understanding I mean separating the essential from the non-essential, analysing all constituents or components, observing their many interactions and relationships, and determining their purpose or significance as individual parts, a greater whole, and one thing among many.

Even while arriving at this understanding, inspiration comes into play, both drawing upon and contributing to understanding. How are a pencil and a knife similar? You can stab someone with a pencil, you can carve your name with a knife, and let’s not forget that you can use the knife to sharpen the pencil. Such partial analogies as these require understanding, and they also further understanding. But they do not arise from any process within our control. Inspiration, creativity, are free. The best we can do is prepare the ground – ourselves – for the work they will bring.
As understanding and creativity progress they draw in questions: what is this like? How does it work? What is it for? What is its purpose? How is it being used? Answering these questions necessarily brings thoughts of improvement, enhancement, efficiency and waste; after all, if we understand how something works, we can also see why it isn’t working as well as it might.

Understanding and creativity can also uncover alternative ways of achieving the same goals, and alternative goals to which these existing methods may be applied. There might be nothing wrong with your method, but a different method could achieve the same goal more easily. Or your method might be so good that we could apply its lessons to other areas of life.

But ultimately understanding is its own reward and these other things are just potentially useful by-products. Philosophers seek to know, and at the same time they ruthlessly scrutinise the integrity of their own knowledge. That is why we have a convergence from the West: “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing”, and from the East: “The Master said, ‘Yû, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;– this is knowledge.”

That is why I characterise this deep desire to understand as both a proficiency of sorts and a hindrance. It is clearly the basis of my skills yet it leaves me with little regard for the utility of those skills. I find I’m driven to understand with an intensity that dies the minute I turn my mind primarily to profit. Only in writing, thus far, have I found a balance of understanding and creativity for which people have been willing to pay. If other avenues exist I hope to find them, or else make writing a career to sustain myself and my family.