Do We Really “Understand”?

I realized yesterday how much I use the word “understand” without actually knowing what it means. It appears to be a strange word. “Understand”. Stand under what?

So I decided to go into the etymology of it and this is what I found out:

It comes from the Old English (earliest historical form of the modern day English language, which was spoken in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the Middle ages) word ‘understandan’ which is a combination of under (‘among’, ‘between’) (possible sources are Latin inter and Sanskrit antar, both of which mean ‘among’ or ‘between’) and standan (meaning ‘to stand’). In Old English, it meant “comprehend, grasp the idea of”. More important is the literal meaning in Old English, i.e., “to stand in the middle of”. And that is the key thing for this post.

Many times in our conversations we say, “I understand”, when we are trying to convey that we comprehend something going on or something that the other person is saying. But do we actually comprehend? Do we actually understand?

If we apply the test of the literal meaning, i.e., to stand in the middle of, it could mean to look at something from the middle or to get to a position from where you can see all around or to get to the heart of something. It could also mean that when we are trying to understand something, we should not just look at the thing itself, but also look at things all around it, as if we are standing in the middle of everything.

In reality, in daily practice, that is not we do. We use the word, ‘understand’, a bit casually and for different purposes. Sometimes, if a person is talking about something which is difficult for them to talk about, we say, “I understand”, just to give comfort to the person that someone is listening to them and understands them, even when we may not actually don’t understand them. At other times, we say, “I understand”, just to make someone stop talking. Or at other times, to show that we are smart enough to get the message quickly. Or for some other reason.

More importantly than in conversation with others, we also use the concept of understanding in relation to our own self too. Generally, we think that we understand ourselves. When faced with an issue, we think for a while and then we assume that we understand what is going on or what to say or what to do, when actually we do not fully know what is going on or what the appropriate action or response should be. We do not go deep enough in the facts. We do not go deep enough in our history. We do not go to the middle of things. We take a look at things from one point of view, the point from which we normally see things, which is the point of view of our ego, our own self-interest, and we think that that is enough.

Lets try to look deeper into the art of true understanding.

Firstly, we need a meditative mind. Nothing can be understood if we do not start with a fresh, silent mind. If the mind is already chattering, if we are already faced with other issues, if we lack the ability to concentrate and focus on something, then the thing will not open up to us. We will remain at a superficial level of understanding. I know a lot of times we feel we do not have the ‘luxury’ of free time or a free mind and things are piling up and we need to quickly resolve something and move on, but that’s not how things will get resolved. We may come up with temporary solutions, but no long lasting results will be achieved with such a limited approach.

Secondly, and closely related to the first element above, we need the ability of quiet observation. If we do not have the patience to sit quietly and observe, then, too, the mind will be unable to comprehend fully.

Thirdly, we need to let go of pre-conceptions. Many times, we may be observing something meditatively and quietly, yet the first thing the mind may come up with might be a pre-conceived notion, some understanding from the past, just because that is readily available. If the mind already has opinions and views about something, then no amount of thinking will help us to reach a deeper level of comprehension. So, we will need to let go of all pre-conceived notions an start afresh. Sometimes people say, ‘no need to re-invent the wheel’. I say, do not shy away from thinking if we need a wheel in the first place. Maybe we do not need a wheel, we need something else. So, do not allow the past to limit your comprehension. The past can help, but not at the cost of stopping the flow of fresh ideas.

Fourthly, we need to stop worrying about the ‘what to do’. Sometimes, rather than understanding something properly, we start worrying more about the actions to be taken, in which case we have put the cart before the horse. We need to let go of the fear. A real understanding brings its own solution to any problem. J. Krishnamurti used to say, the answer lies within the question. Just by looking properly, looking fully at a question, we can find the answer. But if we get ahead of ourselves and start focusing on ‘doing’ rather than understanding, then we set ourselves up for failure. When we really dig deep into something, when we actually reach the middle of something (as per the literal Old English meaning of ‘understandan’), then we find out that true understanding either dissolves the problem itself or brings the solution with it. All pieces of the puzzle are sorted out. Nothing is left to think about. And that only happens when all the elements mentioned above are present, i.e., a silent mind, quiet observation, letting go of all previous ideas about the thing and relaxing and not worrying about things. When all these come together, then the mind brings its own solution to every problem. We do not need to go to someone else to advise us and we do not need to spend hours trying to define the next steps.

So, in future, be frugal in saying, ‘I understand’. Do not use these words (either with yourself or with others) too often and, especially, do not use them unless you really mean it. Because the moment you say, ‘I understand’, you start believing your own words and you stop the efforts to get to the middle of things. You stop the mind from working in that particular direction.

Especially in things that really matter in your life, take the opportunity to go and stand in the middle of things. And when you do that, most of the problems will either vanish or you will be presented with the best possible solutions.

Published by rogeramir

author and blogger, see also my posts on

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