Most people choose a self-help path to get away from some pain. We are all affected by emotional distress of one kind or another. Maybe sadness, depression, fear, anger. Any of the relatively long list of things that can affect us as human beings. Now, what is usually peddled in various movements that erupt to address these issues, and what is lacking, is understanding. What is offered is essentially some technique. These methods are, in the main, calming techniques. For instance, learning to take deep breaths when anxious. And of course, that’s useful, but it’s not going to help you get to the bottom of the anxiety. You’re going to be taking deep breaths for the rest of your life because it’s just like a drug. You are in effect just using a natural medicine that your body can produce of its own accord through taking deep breaths. Now, it is curious that understanding is missing in most spiritual methods because it is the key to our freedom and liberation.
What’s the Difference?
Knowledge, being and understanding are all different. Knowledge on its own is nothing; it’s just something that you push into your memory and chew around in your impressionable mind. This is the apparatus that you develop during life to handle concepts and words and language and images. It’s effectively just like a machine that can process symbols and words and pictures. Understanding is something wholly different. Understanding comes from direct experience. There is no way you can get understanding if somehow you are not able to experience what needs to be understood. There’s the old saying, that if you want to learn, then you must do something. You must do that very thing that you want to learn. So, someone who is a carpenter will not become a carpenter by reading books about carpentry. They become a carpenter by doing it, and as such, they gain an understanding of the nature of the material they’re working with. They learn about wood, the tools used, and the little tricks and techniques that they use to make the thing work. Things that you would never pick up just by reading about something. True understanding comes from living it.
The thing that often frustrates various schools is a lack of understanding. There was a great deal of work in the sense of evoking emotions and techniques to go within oneself, but very little in the way of understanding how these emotions arose and seeing them. In seeing the situation in which they would occur, and understand why those emotions are as they are. Once you know that, you can gain freedom. I’ve found this in my own practical experience, and I’ve seen that there’s no substitute for real-life work on oneself, in the sense of observing what’s going on and understanding what’s going on. Observation is not enough on its own. Self-Observation is a beautiful thing; it allows us to see what’s going on. But if there’s no understanding of why a particular state has arisen, then there’s no moving forward. I’ll give you an example here.
Our primary driver, our animal driver, is our need to survive, and the emotions are a legacy if you like from our animal origins. Emotions are essentially instant responses to situations. These immediate responses mean that an animal can respond to a situation in an instant. It doesn’t have to think and evaluate; it just knows how to respond immediately. So, if it’s in danger, it will flee. It doesn’t think about it; it doesn’t try and reason. If it sees a predator, then it will just escape. If it considers some food that looks like it might be suitable, then it will go and eat. The sense of hunger will, or the feeling of desire for food will make it go and eat. It doesn’t have to think about these things. And so, it is with human beings. Emotions like jealousy and envy and hatred and anger, there’s a long list of them, are instant responses to situations. The primary driver for us, the animal driver, is our need to survive and the emotions derive immediately from that. When situations occur where our survival prospects are enhanced, then we feel pleasure. When we’ve just eaten, if we win a prize, say some money, if we get recognition – all those kinds of things make us feel that our survival is more assured.
On the other hand, if our survival is threatened, then we experience negative emotions. Now, this thing of our survival being threatened doesn’t have to be ‘oh my god in the next five minutes I’m going to die.’ It’s merely the feeling of a diminishing of power.
Understanding the Understanding
So, to recap, knowledge is nothing. It’s just stuff you hold in your head. It’s like you’re a computer and it has no bearing or weight when we’re considering how we feel about ourselves and what we are. Understanding is tied to being and related to experience. Understanding and being go together. So, you might want to investigate understanding. It’s nowhere near as sexy as enlightenment or cosmic consciousness or any of these things that the enlightenment gurus are touting. But it’s more real, the benefits are more robust, and it’s a way to progress in your move towards peace, towards happiness.
For more on the philosophy of understanding see Martin Butler’s website