J. G. Bennett
Understanding - J.G. Bennett
(Extract from original text)
1st December 1963
SUNDAY TALKS AT COOMBE SPRINGS
While I was sitting here waiting, I was thinking how difficult it is to say something that will not be misunderstood. One reason for this is that we are so different that a clear and easy idea for one person to understand is quite incomprehensible to another that kind of situation may easily lead to great confusion. When that happens, we should not take it as an indication that either we ourselves have failed or that what is told us is necessarily confusing or wrong. It may not be confusing at all for someone else and the fact that we cannot understand need not be a weakness in ourselves; it may just be that the particular correspondence which enables us to see it is lacking.
But this is not all, it happens also that at one minute we can see clearly and understand just what is meant by something that is said and perhaps a few minutes later, when we try to return to it, it no longer makes sense to us. You know how it can happen, in listening to a talk like this one, that what was said seems quite clear, but a little later in the day, when we try to remember it, we either cannot recall anything at all or it is quite confused. It is not only that one person is different from another, but all of us are subject to such fluctuations in our inner states that what we understand at one moment seems meaningless at another.
This is not at all a disaster. The fact that different people understand in different ways is the very condition which allows understanding itself to progress. Imagine what would happen if everyone understood and agreed about everything. We should just come to a stand still. But there is an infinite world to be understood ‑‑ not only because it is so large, but because it is so deep, and each one of us can catch glimpses of it which are unnoticed by others. And it is al so true that our own changes of states are something to be thankful for.
Supposing that the state of understanding of any one of us were twenty degrees ‑‑ because of the strength of our own nature, let us say ‑‑ and that it always remained at that level. This would immediately set a limit to what could happen to us; nothing that was beyond twenty degrees would make any sense to us at all. But supposing that it fluctuates, that sometimes our understanding is at ten degrees and sometimes at forty or fifty degrees; then we could penetrate into realms that our average understanding could not possibly touch, but because our average is only twenty, we inevitably lose it all again. This does not really matter, because in the moment of seeing more deeply something has changed in us, and when it is necessary we shall be able to return to it. Therefore these fluctuations of our state are really the condition of our progress.
We have to learn to use fluctuations in our understanding in such a way that they will really help us. If we are always waiting to touch some higher level ‑‑ say forty degrees, when our average is only twenty ‑‑ and think we cannot do anything except when we are in this special state of clear understanding, clear vision, we shall miss nine tenths of the opportunities in our lives. A great deal has to be done when our understanding is even below our own average, in moments when we are obliged to go on in what seems like darkness and confusion to us. In those moments of darkness and confusion we are inclined to think that it is not worth doing anything, and perhaps it will not even occur to us to think, because we feel so wretched and so hopeless, and we just wait for something to happen. The truth is that there is a great deal to be done in those moments if we understand that the amount of what we do is not so important, but that the quality of what we do is what matters. The quality of a very feeble effort made in a state of confusion and weakness can have more value ‑‑ be, in fact, of much greater value objectively ‑‑ than an apparently much greater effort made in a state of clarity.
At the same time, it has to be accepted that for most of the time we are somewhere near our own average, or below it, and this is really not enough for us to understand and face what has to be done; which brings us to realize the necessity for other people. But as there can be a combination of understanding, there can also be a mutual disruption of understanding. Two or three people together can very easily drop below the average for the worst of all of them. They can talk real nonsense, for example, or act foolishly and wonder afterwards why they did so, or find themselves coming out of meetings in a depressed and weakened state. But when there is real union and building up of understanding, then it raises all of them to a much higher level than is possible for one alone; although usually we do not see how this happens because the understanding in which we share is above our own level. One of the principles of understanding is that one can only understand as far as one can reach oneself. When one person has only twenty degrees of understanding available at a given moment, then something which belongs to the twenty‑fifth degree seems just nonsense or is totally unperceived, unseen. The words are just words. If we wish to understand the something which is beyond the degree we are in at a given moment, then we have either to change our own degree ‑‑ which is possible ‑‑ or we have to share in something with others. And then it happens in a mysterious way that we find ourselves understanding things which are normally beyond us and afterwards may even wonder whether we really did or not.
Something has to happen between people for this positive working of understanding to occur. There has to be a positive instead of a negative correlation between their states and their understanding; that is, there has to be an acceptance instead of a rejection.
For example, if I look at someone and put my attention on his Inability to understand, this will bring things down. If, on the contrary, I look at someone and put my attention upon what he is able to understand, then there is a pool of understanding between us on which we both draw. Something happens. Strangely enough, for this to happen it is not even necessary for us to communicate in the ordinary way; that is, it is not necessary for people to talk together and discuss things in order to share in understanding. This sounds very absurd, for we have got in the way of believing that it is only by talking that anything can happen. It is not like that; it comes through acceptance.
It is possible for us to practice this acceptance of other people's understanding and this is what I want to propose to you today as a useful exercise when we are all together. When you look at other people or when you see them going by or are in some way aware of them, remind yourself that that person whom you are looking at has his or her own understanding, which is sure to be different from yours. At that moment you can accept; which means to acknowledge to yourself that there is a person who has some experience not like your own, and out of that experience something has been distilled; that is, their understanding. Do not try to assess their degree of understanding by saying to yourself, for example, "this is only a five degree person" or something similar. That is not the point.
I have found that just through this act of looking at a person and accepting that here is an experience of life with some degree of understanding, your own state changes; you find that you are connected, not only with that person, but in a way that liberates you from this shut‑inness which comes over us whenever we separate or isolate our own understanding from other people, and especially when we deny the understanding of other people. When we say to somebody, or think: "You don't understand", it seems as if we are saying or thinking something rather harmless and perhaps even true. In reality, it is not a permissible thing to say, for he or she does understand, but it is their own understanding. If I say to somebody "You don't understand", I really mean "You don't prove to me that your understanding is the same as mine, which is of course the true one.¨
If we could train or develop in ourselves the tendency, when looking at people, of seeing that each one is a depository of a certain positive degree of understanding and refrain from saying ‑‑ either inwardly or outwardly ‑‑ "you don't understand", many good things would result.
This exercise I am proposing to you today requires a certain focusing of attention. If you bring a person into focus and you look and see that person as someone who has his or her own experience, you also realize that this person has understood in his or her own way.
All degrees are low, what of it? In suggesting twenty degrees, it may be twenty out of a thousand, who knows? It does not matter. What is valuable for us to have is a positive attitude towards the understanding of others.
Copyright - J.G.Bennett and Elizabeth Bennett