Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Understanding With Your Life

The two types of understanding and why the difference matters

Photo: Nuno Duarte
http://www.flickr.com/photos/nunoduarte/2801870408/
When my wife and I were first learning to ballroom dance (much fun!) I was amazed at how effortlessly our teacher was able to lead her when demonstrating a technique to me. She always seemed to know where he wanted her to go and how he wanted her to move, despite being as inexperienced as I. When I danced with her, she mostly found herself confused about what I wanted her to do. "That's because you're confused yourself," our teacher explained to me. "Don't move her with your arms. Move her with your torso, your dance frame. Don't worry about where you want her to go. Worry about where you want to go yourself."

In other words, he was telling me, don't focus on her. Focus on your own technique and trust that she'll follow if you lead with confidence. Once I learned how to lead her with my torso the difference became obvious. Becoming a good dance leader required me to not focus on leading per se but on developing a real ability to dance well. Whenever I tried to focus on getting my wife where I wanted her to go rather than on going there myself, she became confused.

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It struck me at the time that the relationship between dancers is a wonderful metaphor for how people interact in relationships in general. When we try to lead with our arms—that is, force things by focusing on how we want others to behave—we often end up meeting resistance and failure. When we lead with our torso, our dance frame—that is, with our lives—the results seem almost effortlessly achieved. What accounts for the difference and how can we ensure we consistently lead with our lives?

LEVELS OF UNDERSTANDING

One of the great mysteries in psychology is the epiphany. An epiphany is defined as "a moment of sudden revelation or insight." But how such revelations happen, why they happen, no one knows. But that people report experiencing epiphanies all the time implies that understanding occurs at different levels, the truth of which most of us, if we stop to self-reflect for a moment, probably already recognize. For example, we may "know" at one level we should stop smoking (as I wrote about in a previous post, Cigarette Smoking Is Caused By A Delusion) or drinking, or start exercising or eating better, but we often don't. It's as if sometimes our understanding remains theoretical only, lacking the power to change how we feel or to motivate us to actually change our behavior.

To understand something with your head means to understand it on an intellectual level only. You may or may not be able to act on such an understanding. At times, when no obstacles stand in your way, taking action may be easy. At other times, when even a minor obstacle confronts you, your ability to act in accord with your understanding may fall far short.

In contrast, Buddhism talks about understanding "with your life," which in essence means fully believing what you understand—even more, finding yourself incapable of disbelieving it. To return to an example I used in an early post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death: none of us believe if we jump off a tall building we're going to do anything but fall to our death. Our belief in gravity isn't merely an intellectual construct. We fully believe it with our lives.

Imagine now the difference between believing with your head and believing with your life in your ability to lead. The person who only believes with their head they can lead others may appear on the surface to be capable when things are going well, but of course things never go well all the time (otherwise we wouldn't need leaders in the first place). When such a person's decisions are challenged, lacking a firm belief with their life in their ability to lead, they're likely to doubt not only their specific choices but their ability to make choices at all. When dissent arises among the ranks, their need to please might come out (as I discussed in an earlier post, The Good Guy Contract) and they may find themselves granting concessions to people or groups with no good principle to justify it. Over time, their genuine lack of confidence in their ability to lead always becomes apparent to those around them from their actions. We're all experts at reading one another.

Contrast that example with someone who genuinely believes themselves to be a capable leader. Such a person can acknowledge their mistakes without succumbing to paralyzing self-doubt. They can resist pleas for inappropriate special treatment lacking fair justification because to give in wouldn't fit with their vision of good leadership and because they can withstand being disliked. Others may disagree with their decisions, disapprove of their vision, but rarely question their skills as a leader. The reason? Because such a person is able to show others they can lead because they believe with their lives they can.

THE DIFFERENCE BELIEF MAKES

We tend to react to these two types of people quite differently. When a person shows us they possess certain qualities with their actions (that is, with their lives) rather than tells us—for example, shows us they're a leader unwilling to be manipulated or victimized—we tend not to try. When they tell us these things in various ways, wanting to be what they argue they are without having yet actually become it, invariably we react to the truth rather than to the fiction they're trying to promulgate.

If we want to be respected and not victimized, to be attractive rather than repulsive, we must believe with our lives we are those good things. "Fake it till you make it" may have some degree of utility in certain circumstances, but unless you actually "make it" your struggle will mostly remain convincing others of your qualities rather than employing those qualities toward their appropriate ends.

For example, not until I had an epiphany that I used victimization as a strategy to get others to like me, as I wrote about in Breaking Free Of The Past, did I actually stop being a victim. When that happened, people stopped trying to victimize me. I didn't need to tell them to stop. My actions, my demeanor, my life showed them they couldn't. Of course, some people still do try. But now because I genuinely and deeply conceive of myself as a non-victim—in fact, have no interest whatsoever in playing the role of a victim at all—my ability to prevent myself from being victimized is far greater than it used to be. Now my first reaction when someone attempts to victimize me is to confront my would-be persecutor (hopefully in a compassionate way). It's not a strategy I must summon up. It's a strategy that naturally arises out of me before my conscious mind even has a chance to formulate a response, all due to genuine changes I've wrought in the way I believe, think, and feel.

So if you genuinely want to change something about yourself, to change the way others react to you, you must view your intellectual understanding of what needs to change as a first step only. Strive to make that intellectual understanding penetrate so that you understand it with your life. Rather than focus on a more effective way to confront your abusive boss, for example, focus on becoming someone whose life rejects abuse. When you acquire that kind of life, the right strategy will become obvious and your action almost unconscious.

How can you accomplish this? Through epiphany, that mysterious muse, whether occurring in one grand moment or as a series of small discoveries. How to generate more epiphanies, or, more importantly, the kind of epiphanies we need? Therapy works for some. I practice Nichiren Buddhism, the only religion I've ever even encountered that names as it's purpose the eruption of epiphany—wisdom—in the lives of its practitioners. Others spend considerable time in meditation. The best advice I can think to give here would be to try various practices until you find the one that works best for you.

You never know what experiences you need to have that will cause intellectual knowledge to penetrate into wisdom that you understand with your life. It's hard, breaking through delusion, genuinely becoming what you most want to be. But it's always possible. And when it happens, you'll no longer have to fight to be what you want to be. You'll simply be it. And when that happens, others will believe it, too.

 

Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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